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Graeme Smith – South African captain who has a penchant for leading from the front

Graeme Smith © Getty Images
Graeme Smith © Getty Images

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

The man at the top

Yes, he has been gifted with a mighty side for most of his reign. But, few will deny that Graeme Smith has stood 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 is eloquent with the much discussed and rarely witnessed trait of leading from the front. His giant frame can be made out as he stands in the slips under the green cap, active, confident and eternally optimistic. One look at the field is enough to gauge who is in charge. He is out there to win, by playing hard and tough — sometimes a bit too tough. Yes, his zeal to win is sometimes unrestrained, landing him in controversy, especially in the domain of sledging.

When he strides out at the top of the order, it is a sight to intimidate the toughest of opposition. His square jaw juts out, his eyes bore holes into the fielders, his massive form moves menacingly to the wicket.

What follows seldom scores high on the report card of aesthetics. The supposed natural elegance of the left-hander soon turns mythical. The drives are clubbed without any semblance of the caress. The closing of the bat face to force the ball through the on side can seldom be termed elegant. The grip remains incorrigibly bottom-handed. He hacks the ball with a degree of brutality that sometimes seems less than humane. The focus is strictly on making runs, not an inch of pragmatism sacrificed for style. Batting remains a ruthless business — not an art, let alone a fine one.

Perhaps that is why Smith does not enjoy the same amount of press and plaudits like the several brilliant men with whom he shared — and continues to share — the dressing room. Jacques Kallis was classy and correct. Hashim Amla is sublime and straight, AB de Villiers brilliant and breath-taking. Smith is like the brutal stone mason who gives a solid shape to the innings, before the several diverse craftsmen in the line-up can take 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 have trodden, 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 boy, before he was hauled into the hot seat as a young lad of 22. From then on, he has led the next 106 Test matches — more than anyone in the history of the game. And he has won 52 of them — once again more than any skipper has ever done. His captaincy may have its critics, some may consider him somewhat lacking in the dimensions of subtlety. But, his team members always look up to him for guidance, 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

2003-2013

106

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 has scored, it suddenly dawns that Smith has 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 has carved a niche for himself among the kings of the willow. It is perhaps more fitting to observe that he has pummelled his way and broken into the highest echelons of batsmanship with his feats.

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 may not project the impression of a master of crisis. But, Smith is one of the best fourth innings batsmen the world has ever known.

In all, he has 9220 runs scored at 49.56, with 27 hundreds. As many as 1604 of them have been amassed in the fourth innings at an incredible average of 55.31. In successful chases, this figure goes up to levels of the inconceivable.

Smith has been part of successful fourth innings pursuits in 22 matches, in 21 of them as opener. He has 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 comes out all guns blazing and most often the guns continue to blaze till no opponent is 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 unbeaten101 to clinch an unbelievable win against Australia at Cape Town — whenever there has been a whiff of victory, even if stretching beyond an intimidating distance, Smith has 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 is 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.

Graeme Smith has © Getty images
Graeme Smith has come to South Africa’s rescue many times in the fourth innings of a Test match © Getty images

However, it is not only as the destroying batsman with sledgehammer subtlety that fully traces Smith’s characteristics. There is another fourth innings effort that did not amount to more than three runs and was played in a losing cause, but yet paints 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 is much more than one of the longest serving captains of any international side. He is also a pillar in the South African batting line up.

Captain “what’s his name”

It is for very good reasons, though, 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 and Shaun Pollock had just been axed after the 2003 World Cup debacle.

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. After the World Cup, when the ideal man for the job was being sought, this game was remembered. Smith got the call and led South Africa 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.

By now he leads the table of the greatest run scores and century makers among captains in Test cricket.

Highest aggregate runs as captain

Captain

T

R

Ave

100s

50s

GC Smith (ICC/SA)

106

8614

49.22

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

There have been issues, professional and personal, which have raised questions about whether Smith will continue for long.

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

Yet, he still remains very much the man in charge in the traditional format of the game. At 33, Smith still has some years of cricket left in him. This South African team, currently perched at the top of the Test world,has been steered by his able and expert hands through the last 11 years. The period can very well be called the Graeme Smith era of Protean cricket. As captain and batsman he has achieved a lot, but perhaps some dream has remained unfulfilled.

Smith has won 52 matches and lost 27, which gives him an excellent overall record. The South Africans are indeed the number one side in the world now, and a lot of the credit goes to the young man who was surprisingly called upon to lead the side all of a sudden and stepped into the role with gusto. But, the team has not quite dominated world cricket like the West Indies under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards, or the Australians under Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting.

Long serving captains with best win-loss ratio (min 40 Tests)

Captain

M

Won

Lost

Draw

W/L

SR Waugh

57

41

9

7

4.55

IVA Richards

50

27

8

15

3.37

CH Lloyd

74

36

12

26

3.00

RT Ponting

77

48

16

13

3.00

WJ Cronje

53

27

11

15

2.45

MP Vaughan

51

26

11

14

2.36

AJ Strauss

50

24

11

15

2.18

MS Dhoni

51

26

13

12

2.00

PBH May

41

20

10

11

2.00

MA Taylor

50

26

13

11

2.00

GC Smith

106

52

27

27

1.92

Imran Khan

48

14

8

26

1.75

The passion with which Smith goes about his job in the field hints that he would perhaps like his legacy to be as dazzling as those top captains in the history of the game. There is no reason why he and his team should not reach those dizzy levels.

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

(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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