When Mickey Arthur chose Johan Botha to fill in for an injured Graeme Smith as one-day international skipper in Australia last year, many believed he would be just that – a stand-in captain.
But they couldn’t have been more wrong.
In his first ODI in front of a 70000 crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Botha could be seen waving his arms, opening his lungs and commanding his troops. Undaunted by filling the boots of a respected skipper, here was a vocal leader who expected the best from his team and wasn’t afraid to let even the most senior players know it. Botha’s Proteas won that series 4-1. Their only loss was by four runs at Hobart.
When Smith stood down from the T20 captaincy in August, Cricket SA CEO Gerald Majola said Botha was the board’s unanimous choice to take up the reins. His tenure has not disappointed, delivering convincing 2-0 wins over Zimbabwe and Pakistan in the past month.
Smith has been the national skipper in all forms of the game for eight of his nine years in the side. If playing international cricket is a tiring job, then captaining a national side is an exhausting one. Smith is by far the longest serving Test captain. If SA needs an energetic leader to take over the ODI captaincy when he stands down after the World Cup next year, Botha is surely the man for the job.
“I don’t mind the off-field duties that go with captaincy and on the field I like the additional responsibility. I enjoy the extra work and can help the younger guys relax, which is what you want,” Botha said this week.
Split captaincy is a new concept for the South African team but the two captains have given each other the space to do their respective jobs and the side hasn’t lost a match since its inception a few months ago.
“I don’t mind telling Graeme to field on the boundary – he has been great about that,” added Botha. “I did worry about how he would deal with not being captain but he has been brilliant. It has been my turn to be in charge and he has stood back and let me do my own thing. And now I’ll do the same for the rest of the series – we know what a good captain he is and we all support him fully.
“I think he is enjoying some pressure off his shoulders, especially in T20 cricket where the game is so quick. An opening batsman has so much to think about upfront but, as a spinner, I know I can sit back and watch during the first six overs, then I’m involved in the action before I watch the death overs without thinking about batting, where hopefully I get to watch the action as I bat lower down.”
If Botha is to skipper SA in the shorter formats of the game he may want to improve his skill at the toss. In more than 30 occasions that he has led the ODI, T20, SA A or SA warm-up game side he doesn’t think he has won more than six tosses. But every time he has lost the toss, the side has still won. There is something special about him – calculated, efficient, fiercely competitive and likeable.
“I hope to be the ODI captain after Graeme stands down after the World Cup. For me it is about form – the captain has to be one of the first picks in team.
“But I have enjoyed it so far and the guys have responded so well. It will be largely up to the team at that stage too, so we’ll have to see if they want me. Hopefully they have enjoyed it as much as me,” he said.
Botha’s place is relatively safe in the ODI team but he is still new to Test cricket, where the incumbent Paul Harris has done a tidy job.
There is every chance, however, that the Proteas will include both spinners in the Dubai and Abu Dhabi Tests after the ODI series. Botha outperformed Harris in the West Indies earlier this year and he is desperate for a permanent place in the Test side.
“We may play two spinners in the Tests. We’ve never played a Test in Abu Dhabi and it looks like it may spin there from day three. A lot depends on whether Kallis plays as an allrounder or just as a batsman.”
There is little doubt that the Proteas have looked a happy camp under Botha during the two recent T20 series. The newcomers to the side, Botha’s Warriors teammates Colin Ingram and Rusty Theron, have looked right at home in green jerseys. Instead of missing the likes of Dale Steyn, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher, the side has seemed rejuvenated by youth.
“Winning helps but this side feels closer than ever. We realised we only have a limited amount of time to play for our country and must make the most of every minute – you can see that already,” said Botha.
“That’s the shift we have made. We are the Proteas, not the Springboks or anything else. Ingram is a protea farmer and he hadn’t even played a game yet but he taught us about how a protea grows – how it is the first flower to regenerate after a fire.”
This article appeared in the Sunday Times on October 30, 2010, during South Africa’s series against Pakistan in the UAE.