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Graeme Smith’s numbers show he deserves place amongst pantheon of greats in Test cricket

Graeme Smith (above) is the second most successful in terms of runs scored by a Test opener, just behind Sunil Gavaskar © Getty Images
Graeme Smith (above) is the second most successful in terms of runs scored by a Test opener, just behind Sunil Gavaskar © Getty Images

Graeme Smith is amongst the top five left-handed batsmen, the second most successful in terms of runs scored by a Test opener and 11th in the list of all-time highest run-getters. Has Smith got his due as one of the greatest in the history of Tests? Karthik Parimal writes.

Since the age of six, Graeme Smith was an ardent supporter of Liverpool Football Club. Even as the rest of his family cheered for Manchester United, Smith’s loyalty towards Liverpool was unwavering. He idolised Kenny Dalglish, one of the greatest strikers of the club. While Dalglish nimbly dribbled across the green field, Smith graced the sport of cricket with a grit bestowed upon very few. After a little over 12 years of relentless service to Liverpool, Dalglish entered the annals of football history. Like his icon, Smith trekked to the summit of his chosen profession, too, tagging South Africa along to unprecedented success over the course of 12 years.

It is well-chronicled that Dalglish was, undisputedly, one of the club’s greats. Smith, however, wasn’t mentioned in the same breath as some of his champion team-mates, or his contemporaries from other nations, this despite carrying numbers which suggest his promotion to the elite bracket. For over a decade, he captained a side which has featured names such as Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher, Morne Morkel and AB de Villiers. A line-up of this quality is one of the reasons why the South Africans bask in consistent victories. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that Smith’s runs at the top of the order and his leadership have been a major contributing factor, too.

When Smith donned his country’s flannels, the team was recuperating from its lowest ebb. Before he could fathom the nuances and intricacies of Test cricket, he was placed at the helm of the South African side. He squared off against captains who seldom rated him, or who had momentary lapses and couldn’t remember his first name during press interviews. Smith, though, duly ploughed his way to the front pages as South Africa surged to the fore in rankings in both Tests and One-Day Internationals (ODIs). In his early 20s, at a stage when most cricketers are still trying to wriggle out of the cocoon, Smith not just opened the batting, but marshalled his men and gave established teams like England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka a run for their money. Soon, he was a renowned figure.

Sunil Gavaskar, one of the all-time greats and an opening batsman himself, likened openers to plodders, for they were the ones who often put in the hard yards to map a course for the batsmen to follow. “We [walk] the road so that the others [can] drive a car on it,” he famously remarked. Now add to that the responsibilities that are a by-product of being a captain, and you get a tiny glimpse of Smith’s workload, this in an era where every move is inevitably and heavily scrutinised. Despite the impediments, Smith’s efficiency was on the ascendancy more often than not. Yet, not many believed he belonged to the grade of a Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara or Kumar Sangakkara.

While Lara, Sangakkara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul were the three left-handers who received plaudits for their consistent wizardry with the willow, Smith, albeit imposing, was seldom considered a threat as big as the aforesaid names. The fact that he’s finished his Test career in the top five among left-handed batsmen — 9,265 runs at an average of 48.25, inclusive of 27 hundreds and 38 fifties — props the notion that he was deserving of a berth in the league. One can blame his inelegant style of play, but apart from Sangakkara, the other left-handers to top the charts haven’t been graceful to watch either. Why then, did Smith not get his due as one of the greatest ever in the history of Tests?

Highest run-getters (left-handed) in Tests:

Player

Matches

Runs

Average

100s

50s

Brian Lara

131

11,953

52.88

34

48

Shivnarine Chanderpaul

153

11,219

51.93

29

62

Allan Border

156

11,174

50.56

27

63

Kumar Sangakkara

122

11,151

58.07

35

45

Graeme Smith

117

9,265

48.25

27

38

Of the 117 Tests, Smith did not open the innings on just three occasions. In the rest, he thwacked his way to many a milestone — 9,030 runs at just over 49, inclusive of 27 centuries and 36 fifties, making him the second most successful in terms of runs scored by a Test opener, just behind Gavaskar.

Top five openers in Test cricket:

Player

Matches

Runs

Average

100s

50s

Sunil Gavaskar

119

9,607

50.29

33

42

Graeme Smith

114

9,030

49.07

27

36

Matthew Hayden

103

8,625

50.73

30

29

Virender Sehwag

99

8,207

50.04

22

30

Geoffrey Boycott

107

8,091

48.16

22

42

The averages suggest that he isn’t off by much, and that if he’d carried on for three more years (which many expected was likely, considering he’s only 33), there was every chance of him toppling the others slightly ahead at this juncture. The above mentioned players have all led their respective countries at some point of time, but it’s Smith who’s featured in most Tests as a captain — 109. Of these 109 games, he’s opened on all counts except one. Despite the workload, he averaged over 47 and amassed 8,538 runs. Michael Atherton — almost 4,700 runs behind and with exactly half the number of matches — comes a distant second in this captain-cum-opener category.

Captains as openers:

Player

Matches

Runs

Average

100s

50s

Graeme Smith

108

8,538

48.23

25

35

Michael Atherton

54

3,815

40.58

8

22

Sunil Gavaskar

46

3,445

50.66

11

14

Smith’s prowess outside the off-stump was in question during the initial stages of his career. He was named captain by then, and it prompted several first-rate cricketers to wonder if he will last with such crevices in his technique. In fact, Ponting in his autobiography At the Close of Play, wrote as follows about Smith: “His batting stance, grip and the way he opens the face of the bat at the top of his backlift, are not in any ‘how to play cricket’ books that I’ve read,” but not before acknowledging the fact that he turned out to be an excellent player. Like most grand players, Smith worked on his weakness while continuing to build on his strengths. His 9,257 Test runs is an ode to his tenacious character. If only he received his due as one of the game’s greats.

While people outside the field of play may not associate Smith with the top brass of batsmanship, his counterparts, importantly, respect his achievements. In the same book, Ponting pays homage to Smith in words that could not have been articulated better: “During my career, I came to learn just how hard it can be to bat in the top-order and also captain a team, especially when you’re on the field for more than a day and then you have to put the pads on and go straight out to bat… [Despite this, Smith has] averaged just under 50 while appearing in more than 100 Tests, but even more impressive for me is how he’s continued as South African captain for so long while his team has kept improving.”

Thanks, Smith, for the memories, and may you find your rightful place in the pantheon of greats.

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)

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