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Graeme Smith – a towering figure as captain and cricketer

Graeme Smith © Getty Images
Graeme Smith © Getty Images (File Photo)

Graeme Smith, born February 1, 1981, was a pillar at the top of the South African batting order who knew no way to lead, but from the front. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who led in more Tests than anyone in the history of the game.

The man at the top

Yes, he had been gifted with a mighty side for most of his reign. But, few can deny that Graeme Smith stood through his playing days like a colossus in front of his troops, charging headlong into the enemy lines, blazing a trail for his worthy men to follow.

Every aspect of the man was eloquent with the much discussed and rarely witnessed trait of leading from the front. His giant frame could be made out as he stood in the slips under the green cap, active, confident and eternally optimistic. One look at the field was enough to gauge who was in charge. He was out there to win, by playing hard and tough — sometimes a bit too tough. Yes, his zeal to win was sometimes unrestrained, landing him in controversy, especially in the domain of sledging.

When he strode out at the top of the order, it was a sight to intimidate the toughest of oppositions. His square jaw jutted out, his eyes pierced holes into the fielders, his massive form moved menacingly to the wicket.

What followed seldom scored high on the report card of aesthetics. The supposed natural elegance of the left-hander soon turned mythical. The drives were clubbed without any semblance of the caress. The closing of the bat face to force the ball through the on side couldrarely be termed elegant. The grip remained incorrigibly bottom-handed. He hacked the ball with a degree of brutality that sometimes seemed less than humane. The focus was strictly on making runs, not an inch of pragmatism sacrificed for style. Batting remained ruthless business — not an art, let alone a fine one.

Perhaps that is why Smith did not enjoy the same amount of press and plaudits like the several brilliant men with whom he shared the dressing room. Jacques Kallis was classy and correct. Hashim Amla is sublime and straight, AB de Villiers brilliant and breath-taking. Smith was like the brutal stone mason who gave a solid shape to the innings, before the several diverse craftsmen in the line-up took turns to carve and chisel it to perfection.

But yet, if we look at the trail of numbers left along the way his massive boots did tread, we find that Smith is easily among some of the all-time greats.

As a captain, his record is very nearly unbelievable. He played just eight Tests as one of the boys, before he was hauled into the hot seat as a young lad of 22. From then on, he led the next 109 Test matches — more than anyone in the history of the game. And he won 53 of them — once again more than any skipper has ever done.

His captaincy did have its critics, some considered him somewhat lacking in the dimensions of subtlety. But, generally when one moved away from armchairs and ventured into the greens, he was a name taken with immense respect. His team members always looked up to him for guidance which was demonstrated with valour rather than influenced through advice. And few would argue with his authority on the field, over a decade of undisputed leadership and the undeniable results.

Longest serving Test captains

Captain

Span

M

Graeme Smith

2003-2014

109

Allan Border

1984-1994

93

Stephen Fleming

1997-2006

80

Ricky Ponting

2004-2010

77

Clive Lloyd

1974-1985

74

And when one takes a look at the runs he scored, it suddenly dawns that Smith indeed made his place secure in the pantheon of Protean greats, and perhaps even beyond that. Given his approach, it may not be appropriate to say that he carved a niche for himself among the kings of the willow. It is perhaps more fitting to observe that he pummelled his way and broke into the highest echelons of batsmanship with his feats.

Giant in the fourth innings

The pile of his runs is rendered even more impressive because many of them are worth their weights in gold. His gum-chewing countenance and the grammatically questionable batting technique often did not project the impression of a master of crisis. But, Smith was one of the best fourth innings batsmen the world has ever known.

In all, he scored 9265 runs scored at 48.25, with 27 hundreds. As many as 1614 of them were amassed in the fourth innings at an incredible average of 50.44. It came down several notches after the last dismal series against Australia, but still stands in the zone of greatness. In successful chases, this figure goes up to levels of the inconceivable.

Smith had been part of successful fourth innings pursuits in 22 matches, in 21 of them as opener. He scored 1141 runs in these efforts at a mind-boggling average of 87.76, with four hundreds and a strike rate of 69.27. This implies that when chasing in the fourth innings, Smith came out all guns blazing and most often the guns continue to blaze till no opponent was left standing.

Best batsmen in victorious chases (min qualification 500 runs)

 Batsman

T

R

Ave

100s

50s

GC Smith (SA)

22

1141

87.76

4

6

RT Ponting (Aus)

35

911

82.81

3

4

DL Haynes (WI)

30

809

67.41

1

4

G Kirsten (SA)

20

605

67.22

0

5

CG Greenidge (WI)

26

850

65.38

1

4

SR Tendulkar (India)

28

715

59.58

1

4

Be it the superb unbeaten 125 at Hamilton, his magnificent 153 at Birmingham or his unbeaten 101 to clinch an unbelievable win against Australia at Cape Town — whenever there had been a whiff of victory, even if stretching beyond an intimidating distance, Smith jutted out his jaw, crouched at the crease and struck the ball with the same merciless regularity with the zeal of determination ploughing through the runs.

This appetite for impossible chases was not limited just to the Test matches. In that famous One Day International (ODI) against Australia at Johannesburg, as South Africa launched their audacious assault on the target of 435, Smith blitzkrieged his way to a 55 ball 90, adding 187 with Herschelle Gibbs for the second wicket in 20.5 overs. He has scored 2705 runs in 58 successful chases in ODIs, at an average of 55.20 and a strike rate of 85. In all he compiled 6989 ODI runs in 197 matches at 37.98 scoring at a strike rate of 80.81.

Catch all the stories related to Graeme Smith’s retirement here

However, it was not only image of the destroying batsman with sledgehammer subtlety that fully traced Smith’s characteristics. There was another fourth innings effort that did not amount to more than three runs and was played in a losing cause, but yet painted his picture in stark colours of blood and bravado. He had already led South Africa to their first series win in Australia in 2009, and the third Test at Sydney was a dead rubber. However, as usual the thought of ending on the losing side was painful, more excruciating than a fractured hand. He broke his hand in the first innings and retired hurt. In the fourth innings, South Africa had to bat out time. Morne Morkel was sent out to open so that most of the established batting order could remain unchanged in spite of Smith’s absence.

The eighth wicket went down with 26 overs still remaining. Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn then collaborated for a stubborn hour. Smith, his injury by then rendering him unable to dress himself, had his pads strapped on by his teammates and waited in full gear. When Steyn fell there were still 8.2 overs to go. Smith walked out, this time at number eleven and proceeded to bat one handed. Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Nathan Hauritz did not really pull their punches because of the handicap. And Smith stalled them for 26 minutes and 16 balls. The 17th, bowled by Johnson, landed on a crack and jagged back through his defence. The match was lost with just ten balls remaining. Smith walked back, defeated in the game, but a hero in the ballads composed about the great game. The innings was played without painkillers.

Smith was much more than one of the longest serving captains of any international side. He was also a pillar in the South African batting line up.

Graeme Smith © Getty Images
Graeme Smith was a symbol of excellence at top of the order for South Africa © Getty Images

Heavy scoring early on

Born in Johannesburg on February 1, 1981, Smith was educated at the Kind Edward VII School — previously attended by Ali Bacher, his nephew Adam and Neil McKenzie.. He made it to the Gauteng Schools team and later turned out for the South African Schools in 1998-99.

His First-Class debut next season could hardly have been more sensational. Turning out for the UCB Invitation XI against Griqualand West in Kimberley, Smith scored 187. It was the second highest score on First-Class debut by a South African. He went on to make his List A debut that same season, turning out for Gauteng.

Strangely, Smith’s home province did not offer him a contract. Hence, the following year saw him move to Western Province.

He waked into a team witha batting line-up comprising of Gary Kirsten, Herschelle Gibbs, Jacques Kallis, Hylton Ackerman and Ashwell Prince. It helped that often most of them were away on international duty. However, it could have been intimidating for a young batsman. Smith, though was made of sterner stuff. He put his head down, grafted his way forward and impressed coach Eric Simons.

That 2000-01 season, he slammed 676 runs for his new province at 42.25, including 183 against Border in the Supersport Series final. There was success. He hammered 738 runs at 67.09 in the 2001-02 Standard Bank Cup competition, which was the third on the all-time list for most runs in a domestic limited over season.

National honours were not far away. Smith was blooded at Newlands where the visiting Australians played their second Test. He scored 68 in the second innings. Three weeks later, he made his ODI debut at Bloemfontein, scoring 41.

During these very early days, Smith also demonstrated his penchant for controversy — and his lifelong love-hate relationship with sledging. In an interview given to South Africa’s Sports Illustrated he openly discussed the Australian methods of intimidating on the field.

While the Aussies branded him a tell-tale, it did underline that the young man was blissfully bereft of the shy gene, and had a knack of dealing with the media.

That October he scored his first Test century, and made it big. The opponents were Bangladesh, but the ruthlessness with which he got 200 at Buffalo Parkwas ominous. But there was no opportunity to attach the stigma of minnow basher on him. Barely two months down the line Smith followed up his double hundred with 151 in the second test against Pakistan at Newlands.

Captain “what’s his name”

It is for very good reasons that Smith’s enduring image is as one of the longest serving captains of the game. Legend has it that he was driving up Constantia Nek, one of Cape Town’s mountain roads, on a Sunday in March 2003, when he his phone rang. It was Gerald Majola, the chief cricket executive of Cricket South Africa (CSA).

Those were the days when South African cricket were wading through a difficult period. The shadow of the Hansie Cronje affair still loomed large.

The coach Graham Ford and all the selectors were fired after disastrous 2001-02 performance against the Aussies. Shaun Pollock’s captaincy was deemed ordinary. The team was branded old and a bit too commercially oriented. After failure in the World Cup hosted in their own land, Pollock was axed.

Smith had just embarked on his Test career. He had performed with aplomb, getting two centuries and averaging over 55 in his first eight Tests. However, few in the cricket world expected him to be appointed captain of South Africa.

Smith had not really been a born leader, as many may assume. In fact, before being offered the captaincy of the national team, Smith had not led any side in a First-Class game.

During his Gauteng Under-19 days, coach and mentor Jimmy Cook had preferred another captain. It was just before the 2003 World Cup that he was made captain of South Africa A during their trip to Zimbabwe. After this, he spoke to the Western Province coach Peter Kirsten, volunteering to lead the side against the national team during their scheduled warm up match. Smith’s team defeated the seniors by seven wickets.

Smith was not included in the original World Cup squad, but came into the side at the last minute as a replacement for the injured, Jonty Rhodes.

After the tournament, when the ideal man for the job was being sought, the game in which Smith’s team had defeated the national side was remembered. Smith got the call and led South Africa for the first time in a Test match at the age of 22 years and 82 days. Only Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Waqar Younis had led their countries as younger men. Since then, only Tatenda Taibu has joined the list.

Smith’s first few days at the helm were relatively easy, an ODI tournament in Bangladesh followed by two easy Tests against the same hosts. However, the next assignment was a tour of England. He was an unknown entity in the country, and the England captain Nasser Hussain even referred to him as ‘what’s his name’. His technique, temperament and lack of experience came under scrutiny when South Africa were bowled out for 107 in the Natwest Final and lost by seven wickets.

However, by the end of the first day of the first Test at Birmingham, Hussain was fully aware who his opposite number was. Smith batted all day to remain unbeaten on 178 as South Africa piled up 398 for one. He went on to extend his score to 277. By the time the series moved to Lord’s, Hussain probably mumbled his name in restless sleep while plagued by nightmares. Smith hammered 259 as South Africa won by an innings. Smith was named as Wisden Cricketer of 2004.The reins of captaincy had been grasped with the firmest of holds and the grip remains as secure as ever even after a decade.

At the end of his career, he leads the table of the greatest run scorers and century makers among captains in Test cricket.

Highest aggregate runs as captain

Captain

T

R

Ave

100s

50s

GC Smith (ICC/SA)

109

8659

47.83

25

36

AR Border (Aus)

93

6623

50.94

15

36

RT Ponting (Aus)

77

6542

51.51

19

35

CH Lloyd (WI)

74

5233

51.30

14

27

SP Fleming (NZ)

80

5156

40.59

8

31

The legacy

Towards the end of Smith’s days, professional and personal issues raised questions about how long he would continue.

His wedding to the Irish singer Morgan Deane had made a move to Ireland more practical for the sake of his wife’s singing career. His new role as captain of Surrey had led to speculations about whether he would migrate for good. The World Cup loss in 2011 had hurt badly.He had stepped down as captain of the ODI side and after that his form in the shorter format had remained sketchy. He had confessed that he had thought of quitting from Test captaincy as well, but was talked out of it by coach, Gary Kirsten.

In spite of all these reasons, Smith’s retirement at the age of just 33 came as a big shock to everyone in the cricket world and beyond. He had been struggling for form in his last, dismal series against Australia, but most believed that there were a few years of cricket left in him.

This South African team, for many years now have perched at or very near the top of the Test and ODI worlds. They were steered to the summit by Smith’s able and expert hands through a long period of nearly 12 years. He guided the team to series wins in England and Australia, the former rare and the latter pioneering as achievements in the history of South African cricket. His was the only team to challenge the might of the Australians on a consistent basis, and the most regular feature towards the top of the ranking table.

South Africa is not really renowned for great inspirational captains. Alan Melville, Dudley Nourse, Clive van Ryneveld and Trevor Goddard, most of them excellent cricketers, were but very ordinary leaders.

Jack Cheetham was a fascinating exception, but averaged just 23 as a specialist batsman. Ali Bacher’s reign was short and his batting record less than impressive. And Hansie Cronje was a fantastic captain who gave up everything for a fistful of rands and a leather jacket.

In this respect, Graeme Smith stands towering above his countrymen as a hugely successful captain and one of the very best batsmen to boot.

The period between 2002 and 2014 can very well go down as the Graeme Smith era of Protean cricket.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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