Graeme Smith’s leadership qualities were there to see for everyone from a very young age © Getty Images
Mar 5, 2014
Former South African opener, Jimmy Cook, who played three Tests for the Rainbow Nation has a deep-rooted connection with retiring South African captain, Graeme Smith as the going out Protean captain was mentored by Cook during his schooldays at the King Edward School in Johannesburg.
Cook, in an interview with The Indian Express, told that when he first saw Smith as a schoolboy, Cook found him to be quite odd. Smith was bowling in the nets in a cricket clinic which Cook oversaw when another kid approached Smith. Smith got offended and said, “Can you leave me alone? I’m bowling.” And this kid looked at him like, ‘who the hell are you?’
Cook said during the interview, “Even I was taken aback by Graeme’s reaction. He was just 12-years-old. When he batted, every time Graeme hit the ball he would look straight at me as if inquiring ‘Everything ok?’. At the end of the net, he came to me and asked, “What did you think? How did I do?” We spoke only cricket. Jeez, the practice finished and suddenly Graeme’s high-fiving everybody and playing and running around like a normal kid. If anything, he was a naughty little bugger. But while he was playing cricket, there was no one or nothing else that mattered except what he was busy doing. I have never met a more focused young man. Ever.”
Catch all the stories related to Graeme Smith’s retirement here
He mentioned that Smith was an out-and-out Johannesburg boy and moved to Cape Town only much later where he went to King Edward School, where Cook was the cricket coach. And when he Smith turned 16, Cook spoke with the Lions franchise guys insisting that “we need to sign him now. The guy looked at me like I was crazy.”
A year later, Cook mentions that Smith broke into the South Africa U-19s. Cook also added, “I had eight of the 10 franchises calling me repeatedly asking ‘what do we have to do to get him into our province?’
“Mentally, I’ve never seen a kid stronger then Graeme. Play or miss his expression never changed. As a bowler you would wonder, did he play at that ball cause he doesn’t look worried at all.”
According to Cook, Smith had a couple of technical issues to start with. His grip on the bat was something Cook always tried to sort out. “Eventually, we decided to work with it. He just wanted to practice. I used to fetch him (Graeme), Stephen (my oldest son), and a boy called Matthew Harris, who ended up as the Lions wicket-keeper, from school and bring them to the indoor centre at the Wanderers. We would start at 3 o clock. And we would just hit balls. Two throwing to each other and me on the machine. And we would rotate. It would be 7 o clock when their dads used to come and fetch them and Graeme would go, “No, no Dad, just one more net.” We used to be there for four-and-a-half hours”, Cook added.
As he mentions, Smith would never get tired of asking questions. ““What was it like opening the batting? How should I play here?” I used to tell Stephen as we would drive back from school, “Geez, this kid asks a lot of questions.””
He also said that Smith had this uncanny ability of amassing runs even when he was not batting well.
After a point of time, Cook got to know him better and Smith’s father said, “I would like you to look after his cricket” and thus Cook became his mentor.
Cook doesn’t fail to mention that even he was surprised that smith got the captaincy at such a young age.
“It was at the end of the 2003 World Cup with South Africa having been knocked out early and Shaun (Pollock) having lost his captaincy. I was just going to go on as a studio guest for a 7 pm evening TV show. At about 6, Graeme’s dad called me and told me, “Graeme’s going to be the captain of South Africa on the next tour. I can’t tell anyone but I had to tell you.”
“There were six or seven other guests and then they came to me, “Jimmy what do you think? There’s some talk that Graeme Smith might be the man.” I said Greame might be a little young for the job despite being the only one there who knew”, Cook added.
But Cook also added that he knew Smith was a born leader. “I’ll never forget an incident that transpired at a preparation camp before they left for England on Graeme’s first tour as captain. The batsmen were doing some shuttles. The bowlers, however, were done and having a cold-drink on the sidelines. Suddenly Graeme screamed, “Everybody here. You bowlers, don’t you ever go and have a cold-drink when we aren’t done with practice. You come here, stand here and you cheer the guys on and help the guys with the fitness that we do.” There were Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald all standing there. At that moment, I realized we’ve made the right choice here. He’s proven us right for over a decade.”
Cook has remained Smith’s mentor even after he moved to Cape Town. He says, “We’ve always had that sort of unwritten rule. If I need you, I will let you know. The success I had with Graeme has spurred me on to see how many more times I can do this. Get a guy from nowhere and turn him into something.”
Cook, on an emotional note, added that in a way, he has lived his dream through Smith’s achievements. “I wouldn’t have minded being Graeme Smith actually.”
“Graeme’s been a very special guy in my life. Some of the best years of my life were spent watching Stephen and Graeme play together. And I’ve really cherished sitting back in my chair and watching him perform miracles for South Africa”, he added.
“He’s got a bloody good career. And I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone like Graeme again”, he concluded.