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Graeme Smith took over South African captaincy at the raw age of 22, when the nation had borne the ignominy of an embarrassing World Cup exit at home in 2003. Nishad Pai Vaidya looks back at the Smith era and picks a couple of instances which sets him apart as a great leader.
South Africa were 257 for nine chasing 376 to win on the final day at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The Proteas had already sealed the series during the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne, but saving this Test would have meant a lot more. It was in those circumstances that their skipper walked out to bat, with an attempt to do the unthinkable. Graeme Smith had a broken arm and had to go down the batting order. Defeat was inevitable, but there was a ray of hope to save the game on that January day in 2009. Battling pain, Smith bravely held on for 17 deliveries before being castled. Australia won on the day, but Smith’s stature grew manifold in world cricket.
There are many moments that define Smith as a leader for South Africa. One may talk about the two double tons on the England tour in 2003, or the match-winning ton at Headingley in 2008, or even the series winning performance in Australia in 2008-09. Some may even point to the fact that South Africa have never lost when Smith has scored a ton. However, that day in Sydney symbolised his leadership. With each ball hitting his bat, he was in excruciating pain, yet he soldiered on. It wasn’t just about winning the game for Smith, but about setting the example for others to emulate. That was what the team meant to this exemplary leader.
Turn your clock back to 2003! Shaun Pollock, one of the country’s most respected leader lost his captaincy when a comedy of errors saw South Africa’s ouster from the 2003 World Cup at home. The administration had numerous choices — Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher being the leaders. However, they plucked a 22-year-old for the job, a man who had only a year of international cricket behind him. The reins of leadership fell upon a man who wasn’t in the original World Cup squad and came in only as a replacement. Smith was the outsider and least likely candidate! How would this 22-year-old manage a side of some world class players — most of them much senior to him?
But, at thatage, Smith showed character. Just like his physical build, he stood tall and commanded respect; blending in with the seniors and seamlessly fitting the mould. There may have been the early hiccup of losing his first One-Day International (ODI) in charge by a huge margin. However, as the months progressed in 2003, the administrators were vindicated. the tour to Bangladesh in April 2003 was his maiden assignment as captain of the team, but it was the five-match Test series against England that followed, showed Smith’s true character as leader. In the Test series, his two double hundreds set the tone for his side and although England did hit back, South Africa’s feat of taking a drawn series was commendable.
From there on, he was almost irreplaceable. There may have been a few criticisms flying about, but his job was secure for he inspired confidence throughout his tenure. There were two more World Cup disappointments, but his feats in Test cricket made his nation proud. To play 100 Tests is a huge achievement, let along leading in that number. And, so far, he has won 53 of his 109 Tests — a feat that would take some getting in the future. On the eve of his 100th Test as captain, the South African team made a special video in tribute to their skipper. Some of their stories echoed the fact that he was more that a skipper in the dressing room. He was a friend yet someone who commanded respect when the job was to be done. Smith had forged a tight-knit South African dressing room and he lead from the front beaming with South African pride.
Undoubtedly, South Africa would be poorer without a man of his stature. Times were tough for him, especially after the ankle injury in 2013. It would be even tougher for this South African unit as they lost Jacques Kallis late last year. With Smith going, they lose that inspirational figure who never ceased to stand up for his side through thick and thin. This is the end of the Smith-era!
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