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Skipper Smith: Cricket first, life for later

I was used to Ian Botham referring to me as his grandfather figure. Twenty years on, I have to face the fact of taking to dinner an actual grandson-generation figure, who, at 22, is already captain of his country.

india Updated: Aug 26, 2003 13:47 IST

I was used to Ian Botham referring to me as his grandfather figure.

Twenty years on, I have to face the fact of taking to dinner an actual grandson-generation figure, who, at 22, is already captain of his country. It’s a bit of a shock.

I was so much less directed, single-minded, so much less clear in my aims, tasks and renunciations than the young fellow I picked up at his Nottingham hotel on the Friday of the last Test.

I was flighty, inwardly torn between sport and a more academic career, chronically unsure of myself, undeveloped as a batsman and a person.

The young man I found was an attractive mixture of youthfulness, even naivety, combined with the steely maturity and determination shown in his batting and in his approach to captaining a Test side.

He has the male version of a young woman’s charming blushes — expressions that at one and the same time betray both innocence and knowingness.

He is very much the child of his background. “There’s such a variety of people here, and we are taken aback to hear Indians speaking with English accents, we’re just not used to it. At home, if you’re a Xhosa-speaker like Makhaya Ntini you speak English with a Xhosa accent; I myself speak Afrikaans with an English accent. We have a few laughs about it in the dressing room,” he says. Here, in cosmopolitan England, everything seems a bit impure and confusing.

Combined with this inevitable ingenuousness there is, as I say, a strong centre. For example, he willingly makes renunciations in favour of his current role and career.

Graeme, unlike his homophonically named father, Graham, who, having played at province level in all the junior sides up to under 19, gave up cricket to marry his athlete/tennis player wife (Graeme’s mother), is determined to leave his love-life till after his cricketing education has moved on.

Such will power! Having no girlfriend at the moment, he would like female company; but “getting a girlfriend, or getting married, is down the list, way down the list just now”.

At some stage he also wants to do the university degree he declined to start at the usual age after leaving school.

“I admire Kirsten for doing one from 30-35.” (He thinks it’s a BCom.)

Smith foresees himself as “ideally, retiring after 14 years as captain, with a bit of education behind me, and going into a good job. I can also imagine one day sitting at home in my slippers watching TV, with my family all around me and maybe a little bit of a stomach”.

But just now he has other things on his mind.

“It wasn’t as if I’d gone straight from schoolboy cricket into first-class cricket.”

Though he played for the University of Cape Town team, he had no time for study.

He had intended to (“probably computer studies; I would have liked to do psychology, like my younger brother who wants to be a forensic psychologist, but too much work for me”), but he was now a professional cricketer, playing top-level provincial cricket.

Cricket offered glittering and exciting prospects.

After the England tour, they have eight days at home, before setting off for seven weeks in Pakistan for more cricket and “team carpet bowls in the evening”. He is glad he isn’t English, post-Iraq and Afghanistan invasions.

“We’ll wear our team gear all the time, not to be taken as British or American. It must be a nightmare for your guys playing in Pakistan after the war and all.”

I asked him about how he finds the confidence to captain older and more experienced players.

“Shaun’s been fine. He’s got to get used to being a team member, and not captain. I don’t have to say anything to him, he just gets on with it, he knows what to do. I think right now it’s going really well between us. I communicate well with him, try to make him a part of the team.

“No, there aren’t at the moment any problems with senior players. I sometimes have to come down hard on them, but they know it comes with the job. I have to stick my neck out sometimes.

“They know I don’t have much time on my hands, that the pressure is on all the time. They have sympathy with whoever does the job. In fact, the senior guys see me as the right guy, they wanted me as captain. I don’t think they think of me as only 22.”

First Published: Aug 26, 2003 13:46 IST