I have never particularly warmed up to Graeme Smith, cricket’s longest serving leader. Everybody, including me, loved Steve Waugh though. Maybe because he led a team to one of the most dominant decades in World Cricket- a team that had so many world beaters in the side that Waugh himself looked the most ordinary of them. He epitomized grit in a side that thrived on talent and ability, he was the poor man’s Champion. Also, he was an Aussie.
South Africa, since its readmission into World Cricket in 1992, have had some good leaders too. Cronje was my personal favorite until he broke my heart. Pollock was just a step-in, leaving the stage for a 22 year old stocky big bloke in 2003.
Eventually, there can be no bigger compliment to pay to a player than calling him the Steve Waugh of his team.
And this team was very different from the world-beating Aussies. This team was built over years, consistently thriving on passion and discipline, under one single leader for more than a decade.
Smith led an international team, one of the best in the history of the game, for over 10 years. That’s right. He was their sole leader in test cricket, and was their captain in ODI cricket till 2011.
Most players haven’t had a career as long as Smith’s Captaincy career. To put things into perspective, when Smith reached his 9000th test run against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi last year, more than 8600 of them had come as Captain of South Africa. He was a nobody when leadership was thrust on him after a failed World Cup campaign in 2003. And he was mocked for a large part of his early career, but credit must be given to the selectors and board for holding firm- something that even the BCCI have tried to emulate with Dhoni over the years.
Graeme Smith led the charge from the front. He wasn’t a no. 4 or didn’t play at any other safe spot. He played at the top, blunting attacks and frustrating them with his ugly hard-on-the-eyes technique, miraculously surviving (and thriving) in test cricket for a very long time. His bad streaks were worse than any batsman ever and looked even worse because he was often outplayed by single bowlers, but his purple streaks are something that will be remembered forever.
Because, to be honest, he never really had a purple patch.
He would often hit back after a string of single-digit scores, and this would almost always be in the 4th innings of a match, during a pressure chase, while being down in a series. It is amazing how often South Africa has lost the first test of a test series, and how often they’ve hit back almost immediately. There has been no better counter-punching team in World Cricket, especially since 2006.
Smith has had 5 double centuries, 2 of them came in the same series in his FIRST assignment as Captain on a 5-test tour of England in 2003. His 277 at Edgbaston followed by a 259 at Lords (innings victory) shut his detractors up immediately. This was no 23 year old kid caught in the headlights; this was a man born to score runs only in charge of a side.
Smith’s best test innings were arguably all against England, his absolute best being the 154* at Edgbaston in 2008 in the fourth innings chasing more than 280- more than 50% of his team’s score to achieve one of South Africa’s most important wins and their first series win over England.
Many would argue that he didn’t have to face Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel or Pollock in an opposition side, and hence forced his way to greatness against lesser attacks. But he squared up to Australia at their peak, batting with broken fingers and deflated heart, achieving series victories over them TWICE away from Home. It is only fair that his last test century was a truly great one- a massive double century after Surgery against a rampant Pakistan side in the heat of Abu Dhabi after being 0-1 down in a 2 match test series, in danger of losing their first away series in 8 years. It was an unbelievable knock against Ajmal and co. after being decimated in the dustbowl only a week ago.
It is also only fair that his final series came against a team that defined him: An Australian side on their way back up, the same team that defeated Smith in his first test as Captain 11 years ago. That he failed as a batsman in this series only confirmed that he was never truly great; instead, he skipped the ‘great’ part and jumped straight to legend, possessing abilities that even his contemporaries envied- a square jaw and a streetfighting attitude.
His most important contribution, ironically, was not from his bat or mind- it was the fact that he oversaw the rise of World Cricket’s greatest batsman, all-rounder, wicketkeeper and bowler over 10 years. Amla and De Villiers, Kallis, Boucher and Steyn would vouch for that personally.