The buck stops with the captain
Cricket captaincy is unique in many ways. The captain of a cricket team has far more control over proceedings during a match than in most other sports. In some other sporting codes the role of the captain is clearly important but the influence of the coach or manager on decision-making is a lot greater.
Not so in cricket. Once the match starts the buck stops with the captain. That is why the captain's position in international cricket in particular is such an important one. The challenge for selectors and cricket boards is to find the right person to fill this role.
On the international stage these days, the captain has to be one of the best players in the team. He has to lead from the front in his particular discipline and produce regular match-winning performances himself.
In years gone by there were some international captains who were selected because of their leadership abilities rather than their actual performance level or skill set. Those days are long gone. International cricket is so competitive that there is no place for anyone to hide, let alone a captain who cannot justify his place in the team.
One of the other crucial factors for any international captain is to know the personalities of his players. A captain will seldom get on with every member of his team, but it is a problem if a captain becomes too tight with some players at the expense of others.
In fact there has to be a bit of a distance between the captain and his charges. Whether he likes the players individually or not, the captain has to be able to bring the best out of each individual, as well as bring the best out of the team as a unit. This is one of the most difficult aspects of captaincy.
That is why a captain like a coach, has a limited shelf life. A certain type of captaincy style will only work for a certain period of time. It is inevitable that after a period in charge, the motivational powers of a captain diminish. The players become used to a certain way of doing things, and a personality style that was once highly successful doesn't have the same impact anymore.
A good captain will sense when this is happening and once that time comes, will know that it is better to move on. Rather move on a bit too early than too late. This is the decision that currently will be on Graeme Smith's mind. He clearly felt that his effectiveness as a leader was something of the past in the short versions of the game, and that is why he let the captaincy go in those areas.
The question is whether he should do the same as far as the test arena is concerned. The upcoming test series against Australia will determine that. If the team does well and he recaptures his batting form, he possibly could carry on for a while. Should the desired results on both fronts not be forthcoming, it will be time to think again.
There is no doubt that the pressure of international captaincy in teams where the expectancy level is high, is intense. It will always be a tough job. In a number of cases it has curtailed the playing careers of those who took on this role.
The advantage of captaincy, however, is that when things are tough on the field, the captain can take matters into his own hands by changing the situation through his own performance or the decisions he makes. There is nothing more motivational for a team than to have a fearless leader who flourishes when times are tough. The players should always know that the captain will be there to count on in the trenches when the flack is flying.
The personality style that is required to lead a team will depend largely on where that team stands in its development. A young up-and-coming team may require an experienced, forceful leader. Conversely a successful and experienced team will mostly need a calm, assertive individual who allows the senior players in the team some leeway and takes their input on board.
The main difference between the role of the coach and the captain is that once play starts, the coach becomes not much more than a spectator with a vested interest. At this point he merely looks on and perhaps offers the odd suggestion.
The most important job of the coach is to present the captain with a team that is one hundred percent prepared for battle on matchday. As soon as the match starts, the coach hands over the team and the captain is in charge. This is when coaching becomes frustrating.The coach becomes a nervous bystander with his future dependant on the outcome.
Having worn both hats, if you asked me which role I prefer, the answer is simple: captaincy every time. It is much better to have one's destiny in one's own hands than to rely on others for results. We are all different in that way.
Gary Kirsten didn't particularly enjoy international captaincy but he loves coaching. Hopefully he will still do so when his stint with the Proteas is done.