Retired South African captain Graeme Smith has advised newly appointed West Indies captain Jason Holder to avoid “team politics” as he starts his tenure in charge of the Test team.
Smith took charge of the Proteas at an even younger age than Holder when he was appointed captain in 2003 at the age of 22.
Holder, 23, was named as Denesh Ramdin’s successor for the two-Test series in Sri Lanka that gets underway in Galle on October 14 after displaying impressive leadership credentials at the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand earlier this year.
Coming only months after a pay dispute led to West Indies’ withdrawal from their tour of India in October 2014 –– a move that landed the WICB with a multimillion dollar bill for compensation –– the team battled back from an early defeat against Ireland to reach the quarter-finals, where they eventually lost to the finalists, New Zealand.
Despite his tender years, Holder has already received the endorsement of one of the region’s greatest players, Brian Lara, who praised his “demeanour” during that tournament and likened his stature to that of a young Clive Lloyd.
“Clive Lloyd was not the best batsman, he was not the best bowler back in the early 70s but you could tell that a lot of the players respected him,” Lara told ESPNcricinfo ahead of the Help for Heroes charity match at The Oval.
“I hope that Jason gets the same respect from the players, and also the board. He finds himself in a very tough situation where there are unhappy players but if the board gives him the support that he needs and he can express himself, then he can become a very successful captain.”
There are no better role models for young captains than Smith, whose tenure began against the backdrop of South Africa’s humiliating early exit as hosts of the 2003 World Cup, and with the Hansie Cronje match-fixing scandal still an open wound for many of the country’s leading cricketers. He went on to lead South Africa for 11 years and a record 109 Tests.
However, Smith recalled how he had been forced to learn on the job in the early years of his captaincy and warned that Holder would face as many challenges from outside the dressing-room as from within it.
“I think he’s got to understand the unique challenges within West Indies cricket,” Smith told ESPNcricinfo.
“From my perspective I had to do that in South African cricket also. It took me three or four years to come to terms with it.”
“I think when I was 26, I had captained South Africa for four years and I only really started figuring it out then. I think that next period was probably my best period as captain, when I understood my team, the type of players I had, myself as a leader, and how I wanted the team to play.”
Smith sustained his authority in the intervening years through his sheer weight of runs, not least his extraordinary scores of 277 and 259 in the opening two Tests of the tour of England in 2003. But, by his own admission, he “bumped his head” as a leader on several occasions, not least during a feisty one-day series in 2004 when he was out-manoeuvred by New Zealand’s veteran captain, Stephen Fleming.
“The sooner [Holder] learns his own strengths and weaknesses, the better he’ll be able to lead that team,” Smith said.
“We all know West Indies has the unique challenges. I wish him all the best but we all know it’s not going to be easy.”
Smith added that the best means of sustaining his authority and escaping the pressures caused by the inter-island rivalries that have often beset cricket in the Caribbean was for Holder to foster a team environment that protects and nurtures West Indies’ competitive spirit.
“You’ve got to separate the two,” he said. “You have to understand and manage that space as well as possible outside, but if you can protect that environment, you can get those players playing for you and get the most out of them.”
“The minute the two environments leak [into each other], when there’s a lot of politics, it’s tough. He’s got to find a way of galvanizing that environment, and create a culture within that team space where the players want to play for him, want to do well, and separate the two in many ways.”
Lara praised the selectors for the appointment of Holder, but reiterated the need for the WICB to follow that move up by backing their captain. However, he also believed the new leader would be fully capable of looking after himself.
“He’s a tall, good-looking guy,” said Lara. “Nobody would have backed Clive Lloyd into a corner back in the day, looking for a fight. I don’t think anyone is going to back Jason Holder into a corner. I think he’s going to get a lot of respect from his teammates.”