Dinner with Mickey and Graeme

With us at dinner in Johannesburg as we talk is Graeme Smith, the South Africa captain with whom Arthur had so much success. Cricket may have men of equal stature, but none better. Together they took South Africa to No. 1 in the world, their various gifts combining to bring the best out of a talented intake.

Smith howls with laughter as we remind Arthur of his animated reactions to the slings and arrows of a day of Test match cricket. Mickey defends himself; Graeme laughs louder. There is no hiding place, for they know each other too well. This respect and friendship is something to behold and it drives revealing conversation.

Pakistan were beaten in little more than three days in each of the three Tests and Arthur publicly grumbled about some of the decision reviews that went against his team and about the cracked pitches, which were spicy to say the least and, at times, closer to dangerous than is right.

“I’m in favour of home advantage, but not of dumbing down surfaces to create uneven bounce that compromises the game. A balance between bat and ball is essential, of course it is, and if it weighs in favour of the ball that may be no bad thing, but the pitches we have seen through the one-day series, on the same grounds as those used for the Test matches, prove that home advantage was taken too far over the three Tests.

“Yes, South Africa have a terrific fast bowling attack and they outplayed us, but cricket has to be careful what it wishes for. The game is made up of many skills and attributes and we should all seek common ground to allow them to flourish. South African pitches never used to be like the ones we saw at Centurion and Cape Town, or the one India played on at the Wanderers last year. There’s no need to spice them up – the quick bowlers have always had a good run for their money in South Africa anyway.”

Smith was hard pressed to disagree, though he pointed out that Pakistan were ill prepared, a point with which Arthur could not argue. “It’s a tough schedule and the fine balance between rest and play is almost impossible to get right. In total we had three months in the UAE before coming here, and a couple of tougher provincial matches might have been better than the two informal warm-up games we played. In general, I think more time should be given to preparation, otherwise the current trend for teams to struggle away from home will get worse and Test cricket will become too predictable because of it.”

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They began to reminisce about the South African sides that won in Australia and England, and held their own on the subcontinent, between 2008 and 2012. Smith talked about the culture, the trust and the honesty behind closed dressing-room doors that gave succour to a deeper understanding of what team spirit truly meant. The insecurities of a new South Africa that features the two extremes of misguided tokenism and essential transformation meant that all but players of the Kallis-Pollock level of talent spent much of the time looking over their shoulder. Smith learned to handle this with remarkable patience and empathy. “Graeme created a pathway for the guys through his own example and clear thinking. Honestly, transformation was no big deal to Graeme. It was there and adhered to but never with anything other than a nod to the inevitable and hugely important future of our country. In so many ways, he was an unbelievable leader.”

Arthur’s most treasured cricket memory is of his captain going out to bat at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January 2009 with a badly broken left hand. The series was already won after victories in Melbourne and Perth but the Sydney Test was all but lost until an unlikely partnership between Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini gave an inkling of hope. What the hell should I do, Smith asked himself in the dressing room as the possibility of being required to bat became ever more likely. Arthur was frantically keen for him to get out there; the physio anything but. Meantime, the team’s mind coach dithered, creating further confusion.

“He had to bat,” says Mickey. “It was made for him and had he taken the single at the end of the previous over and not been on strike for the freak ball out of the rough outside the left-hander’s off stump which bowled him, I’m convinced we would have saved the game. It was brave, yes it was, but it was typically Graeme, 26 minutes of single-minded defiance that perfectly illustrated the soul and strength of the man and his country.”

It took him a while to get the gear on, so sudden was the need, and when he finally emerged out of the away dressing room and trotted down those shallow steps and out onto the field, the members stood in awe. Their applause spread quickly and before Smith realised it himself, the whole ground was standing and applauding. Australians don’t offer such warmth easily, not to the opposition anyway. Some years later, Smith was named a Bradman Foundation honoree, a recognition bestowed on very few. ‘Yah, well, it was nice, very moving actually,” he says. Arthur says that the memory of Smith walking out to bat that late Sydney afternoon brings a shiver to his body to this day – “See, look, goosebumps!”

Former comrades in arms: Smith and Arthur Getty Images

Smith is the subject of Arthur’s favourite innings too, the unbeaten 154 at Edgbaston in 2008 that won the Test on the last day. South Africa were to go on and win their first series in England, an achievement that brought both men as much satisfaction as the first win in Australia later that year. Smith made a hundred in the 414-run chase at the WACA too. He is a man addicted to the adrenalin of such challenges and was a cricketer who rarely failed them.

Arthur’s greatest challenge came in the most unlikely fashion, and in Australia. Appointed the first foreign cricket coach of the national team, he moved from the frying pan of South Africa’s diverse complexities to the fire of Australian sport. He had emigrated with his family to Perth, in search of a safer life for his growing girls. He impressed in his work for Western Warriors and the Australian job came up – bingo. He loved the country-wide commitment to cricket, how much the folk knew and cared, and how the players saw the game as a mirror of life. He found Michael Clarke to be both a reliable ally and brilliant tactician and David Warner a pleasure with whom to work in all facets of the game. In fact, he and Warner remained close and in frequent touch even after Arthur had been moved on.

“Homeworkgate”, as it became known, was to blame for his sacking – indirectly, we should say – after a bad defeat in India moved the coach to ask the players to self-appraise their performance and suggest ways forward with some notes of their own that Arthur would collate and share. That four of the trickier players failed to contribute irked the management and led to Arthur being pushed to act in the setting of precedent. Against his better judgement, but with strong support from the captain and team manager, he did so. The players were sent home and so began Arthur’s journey down to the thinnest edge of the Australian wedge. “It was tough to be an outsider in that job, which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did, but the end was desperately disappointing. We were moving in the right direction, albeit against a turning tide in attitudes and approach from both Cricket Australia and some of the players.”

It is quite a portfolio – South Africa, Australia and Pakistan at international level. He is the most charming man, savvy enough to negotiate rough waters and smart enough to adapt to place and time. Of all the ticks one might put alongside his name, the fact that the players he works with so value him might be first among them. He has been known to use both carrot and stick but, unconditionally, he will fight the cause of those in his care.

Down the road, he might have England in his sights, either with the national team or a county. He likes the place, for a start. It would be a surprise if Ashley Giles did not sound him out, among a select few candidates, for the job to be vacated by Trevor Bayliss at the end of the coming English summer. Does it come too soon, though? Pakistan cricket is now set deep in Arthur’s heart and the raft of talent that continues to emerge from these formidable people will be hard to resist.

Stick or twist, Mickey? It’s a tough one, but when pushed, his immediate response was to stick. As he quickly pointed out, it’s a hypothetical question and something of a distraction while there is a World Cup to win. Failing to get any further with my probing, I made my way back to the hotel, at which point Graeme dragged Mickey to the bar for a whiskey or two: old habits die hard. So many battles shared and so many won.