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Sport Thought: Smith needs a word to the wise when it comes to captaincy

Which says something for Paine’s resilience. He was thrust into the job as one of the least-credentialled Australian captains in history. He had not sought it nor could ever have imagined it would come his way. And now he can’t help but hear the cheering for Smith from the bleachers. Yet, through the storm he has performed with unblinking strength and maturity.

Ironically, his worst moments came as his team retained the Ashes in England.

Here was the realisation of every Australian captain’s ambition; an achievement which had eluded two successful skippers on the four previous English tours. Yet one bad decision review under fierce pressure at Headingley contributed to Australia losing that match. Then, at the Oval, perhaps basking in the fact that the Ashes were now in the bag, Paine dropped his guard and made a poor decision at the toss.

A series that might have been won 4-0 was squared. The interim skipper was an easy target. And, of course, the captaincy discussion was bubbling up with every extraordinary contribution made by the former captain, deposed in Cape Town’s wake.

To those who believe that the captaincy should simply go to the best player, or that Smith’s sin in South Africa had been exaggerated, or that he’d done the time for his crime and was now rehabilitated, this was redemption in full.

This is, however, to miss the crucial point that Smith’s loss of the captaincy had nothing to do with batting skill and runs scored. It had everything to do with lack of awareness of the responsibilities of leadership. Everything to do with failure to grasp the nettle when an uncomfortable action was required.

Tim Paine has been subjected to intense levels of scrutiny on his leadership, and handled it with maturity.

Tim Paine has been subjected to intense levels of scrutiny on his leadership, and handled it with maturity.Credit:Getty Images

To ever again become Australia’s captain, Smith must be able to show that his lessons have been learnt. His comments in recent days that he believes he performs better with the captaincy than without it, could easily give the impression that he still doesn’t quite understand this fundamental issue. Not that he was necessarily conveying anything other than what he feels. But why say it? For its effect would inevitably be to drive a new round of headlines.

Not that this is to say the comment was made mischievously; from the outside, that’s a judgement
which simply can’t be made. On the most favourable view, though, Smith was displaying a naivete which modern captains must have the maturity to avoid. Perhaps it was born of the same personality trait that, during the heated hours in Cape Town, prompted Smith to confidently presume his captaincy would remain unaffected by the train-wreck which had just transpired on the ground.

Of course, cricketers can’t be expected to perform like highly programmed politicians, and we wouldn’t want them to be. Nevertheless, in these days of leaders’ words being subjected to forensic analysis, an aspiring captain must possess the judgement to avoid unwise public contribution.

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Particularly in relation to an issue as serious for Australian cricket as this.

For Smith to resume the captaincy in the future will require a judgement on the part of Australian cricket’s decision-makers that such a course is appropriate and that it’s become acceptable to the majority of the nation’s cricket lovers. It might even require consideration as to how it would be viewed across the cricket world, for Australia’s sporting reputation is a matter that extends far beyond our own shores.

Apart from continuing to play as superbly as he lately has done, the best path to absolution for Smith involves total, obvious, and unswerving loyalty to the man who is currently occupying the position that used to be his. And this must be offered both inside and outside the field of play.

While it’s likely that in his own mind Smith feels sure he’s providing this, he must think harder about the impact of his words.

On this matter, Cricket Australia should be offering counsel. A leader who has been guilty of a serious failure in his role but who, due to his talents and experience, might remain a captaincy option for the future warrants no less.

Australian cricket has lately learnt the truth of the saying that while reputations can take a lifetime to build, they can be destroyed in a second. The boardroom custodians and on-field stars of Australian cricket still have work to do. There can be no half-measures.

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