Time with Corrie 'a plus'
Cape Town - In the first instalment of a two-part Q & A by Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing with GRAEME SMITH, the Proteas captain discusses his leadership, succession issues, injuries … and forging a bond with a new coach.
Doctors, operations, jabs, rehabs … have your personal trials and tribulations over the past two years taken a mental toll?
I suppose the only mental toll has been the frustration. The fingers problems have been especially frustrating; I played with the elbow injury for a very long time. Keeping myself on the park through 2008 and 2009 in tough series against England and Australia … it was crucial I be there; I wanted to be there. Being able to perform well through it all was a challenge and that was mentally draining. Fighting pain off while you’re playing is actually more frustrating than being sidelined in a recovery mode. The last injury (early in the Indian Premier League) was irritating because I’d felt fresh again and ready to play. A positive from it was being able to spend time with Corrie (van Zyl), get to know him better, listen to his philosophy properly and make a few plans for the World Twenty20. He came to Cape Town and I spent time with him in Jo’burg too.
Is it true to say you tend to have good recovery powers from various injury setbacks?
With ever-greater experience comes the knowledge of what it takes to get yourself ready again. Getting back into the fast pace of Twenty20 is the big challenge now. The medical guys tell me I do tend to recover quite quickly from the breaks. This latest one was meant to take six to eight weeks and after four I was pretty much ready to go. I’ve been having some full throw-downs with Vinnie (Barnes, Proteas assistant coach) -- re-entering the nets for the first time will always give you a few “ifs”; you accept that. The next seven days are crucial to my preparation, with two warm-up games on the 28th and 29th. I’m generally not one of those guys who needs four matches to get kick-started; one good knock or even a “feel-good” net session can get my confidence going.
People have spoken of a finger “jinx” for you … is it something that affected you earlier in your career?
Really, the last few years have been the first where I’ve ever had issues with my fingers. To be fair though, Mitchell (Johnson) broke this knuckle (points to area above his left little finger – Sport24) in Sydney and it’s generally this one that gives me hassles over and over again. Little parts always seem to get hurt after the knuckle broke. I was joking with the doctor the other day that I could have a few arthritic issues later in life. But I’m feeling fresh and excited to play cricket again, which is always a good thing. Maybe missing most of the IPL was a blessing in disguise, coming as it did after the whole matter of Mickey (Arthur) going and the draining, gruelling mental effect … I was thrown to the wolves to take a beating after some ridiculous media reports surrounding the whole affair.
Although he wasn’t inactive for injury reasons, do you think someone like Mark Boucher, who spends so much time on a cricket field, could benefit also now from being omitted from many Bangalore matches?
I think so, and not just Bouch. Many of the South Africans in the IPL have been on the bench. Corrie and I have discussed at length how to balance guys like Jacques (Kallis) and Dale (Steyn) who have carried high workloads, against others who have been inactive. But that touch of mental refreshment and re-assessment you get when sidelined could have pluses for us in the Caribbean, in some cases. Bouch, Roelof (van der Merwe) and England’s Eoin Morgan actually flew home before the Challengers’ semi-final! There’s a large Aussie influence in the IPL; the Aussies tending to get a lot more opportunity than the South Africans and other international players. If you look at Bouch he’s clearly ‘kept well, but batting-wise been at seven and come in with five balls to go, so no chance to show what we know he’s worth at the crease. That must have been frustrating to him.
Just how different has it been, working with new coaching personalities like Corrie and Kepler Wessels after your long stint with Mickey?
Mick was quite laidback in his approach, very well organised, not an especially forceful guy but had his own methods. Corrie is very detailed, hard-working behind the scenes, hard-working in training. I’m looking forward to seeing our relations develop. I’ve gone into every coach with a very open mind. I’ve always believed the interests of the team come first, and if I don’t feel like I’m the right man for my job then I must move away. South African cricket will always be bigger than the individual, always move forward. Kepler won’t work so intricately with the team, more on his consultancy basis. He has a lot of knowledge on the game, and is an interesting personality. If he’s got value to add he must be used. With the Indian tour nobody was quite sure yet which direction we were going in. It was tough for everybody. I think Corrie got more confidence in himself once he was nailed down to go right through to the next World Cup. The last four weeks he’s certainly put in a helluva lot of graft for the World Twenty20.
You’ve sometimes hinted that you might reach a point – perhaps 2011 -- where you consider the luxury of playing purely as a batsman and no longer captain as well. Yet Gary Kirsten told me recently he couldn’t envisage you as a rank-and-filer … that you might be saddled with leadership, because of a natural affinity to it, for the rest of your career! Thoughts?
(Laughter) Gary and I actually chatted the other day and it was definitely a topic of conversation. He said “captaincy is just what you do”. Look, I do see 2011 as the year to reassess my career in some respects. Obviously there are some variables out there … how the team is doing and how I can take it forward. Personally, the biggest challenge I have is developing the next guy. I don’t want to be throwing someone in at the deep end.
But I can’t think of anyone in the national team at present with a real hunger for your job …
Ja, with all respect to the guys there’s no one guy I’d like to put under pressure and no one individual who is actually putting his hand up and saying “ I want to be next captain of South Africa”. It’s something I’ve been working hard on: there is a tier of guys I kind of brought into the side … Dale, Hashim (Amla), Morne (Morkel), AB de Villiers, JP Duminy. They’ve been developed in my era, but I also need help from other around me in taking these guys to the next level. Look, I do believe I’m a leader and yes, 2011 may be an assessment point for me. But it doesn’t automatically mean I’m going to be walking away. It’s about what’s best for all of us. I’m also very keen to develop more of a “cultural identity” for the team, kind of like the All Blacks have done. I’d really like to achieve that.
There’s been some upheaval lately at your franchise, the Cape Cobras, with coach Shukri Conrad sent on his way – did you see it coming?
Of course there have always been whispers of guys being unhappy with Shuks … there was the whole thing with Jacques (Kallis) and Mark (Boucher) leaving. You hear stories but I really haven’t been involved enough to understand what’s going on; I didn’t know it was coming. I’m probably going to be chatting to Andre (Odendaal, the Cobras CEO) … I’m a bit nervous about getting involved in stuff like this; I sometimes seem to get linked to matters I’ve had nothing (to do with). But at a personal level, I arrived here as an 18-year-old and saw the value of a strong WP/Cobras franchise. It’s such an important region for South African cricket. Let’s be honest, making semi-finals today in competitions involving only six teams … maybe it’s not such an achievement. You should be making finals and pushing for trophies more and more often. Good coaches are absolutely essential in the South African cricket environment; hopefully the right guy comes in at the Cobras.
*In part two tomorrow, the focus will be specifically on South Africa’s challenge at the ICC World Twenty20 in the Caribbean. Don’t miss it!