March 4, 2014

Graeme Smith: Frankenstein's Kirsten

His technique would make a spider on skates look elegant, but how dangerous was he when it came to high-pressure chases?

A drunken stork that can deliver babies with the efficiency of a hyperactive midwife © Getty Images

Australia are currently specialising in series of almost identical matches. The recent Ashes saw a recurring nightmare of Haddin-inspired recoveries, first-innings collapses, baggy-green second-innings thwacks, and a slide to inevitable defeat, all with Johnsonian moustaches roaring past in celebration. The monotony was broken only in the fourth Test in Melbourne, when England found a new and innovative way to lose. Albeit with many similarities, and another variation on the theme of early promise giving way to miserable annihilation. It was like a series of five particularly gloomy Rothko paintings, in which the fourth one was upside down with a willy graffitied onto it.

In Australia's current series in South Africa, three times the team batting first has taken a massive first-innings lead. In the first two Tests, a 90mph-denouement was administered by a champion paceman. South Africa, unlike England, remember at least to change which side was doing what within this pattern; unless they can stop the formula being applied again in the final two days, they will lose a series for the first time this decade.

Australian habits have recurred - Johnson, obviously; critical, high-impact runs by Steve Smith; a Clarke century at a series-shaping moment; proactive declarations; Warner transmuting from a fist-flinging idiot with a seemingly endless collection of stupid things to say, into one of the most influential players in Test cricket with a seemingly endless collection of stupid things to say. And, in the third Test, we have seen once again Ryan Harris scalping the opposition captain/opener with a beauty; and one of the opposition's most important players retiring. Perhaps Graeme Smith, like Swann, checked out of Hotel International Cricket anyway, but the way in which their games were dismantled by Australian brilliance has hastened (or at least, given the impression of hastening) their departures.

The similarities may end there. Perhaps South Africa will find the resolve and luck to escape with a draw. Perhaps they could conjure a miraculous victory, especially if Clarke dangles his customary declaration carrot. Whatever happens, it is hard to imagine Hashim Amla or AB de Villiers being sacked for being too gobby. Australia have transformed the tenor and landscape of Test cricket in this 2013-14 season. If they can secure victory in the next two days, they will have obliterated the status quo, with eight Tests of occasionally vulnerable but bristlingly high-octane cricket.

Smith's retirement removes from the international game another of the towering figures of modern cricket. He has captained in a record 109 Test matches (including the pointless ICC World XI's alleged "Test" at the SCG in 2005-06), and opened the batting in 108 of them - exactly twice as many as the highest number of Tests captained by any other opener (Mike Atherton).

On an entirely personal level, I hated watching him bat. This was largely because he was irritatingly good against England, especially in England. He scored five centuries in 12 Tests here. Only one man this millennium has scored more - Dravid, who scored six, with rather more finesse and rather less rapidity. Smith's first two were elephantine double-hundreds in 2003, when he became the second man ever to hit two 250-plus scores in a Test series. (A quick multiple choice quiz question: Who was the other? (a) Donald Bradman; (b) Monty Panesar; (c) Chris Martin; (d) Elvis; or (e) Donald Bradman. And… pencils down… The answer is (e). I will also accept (a).) As an England fan, both innings were massively irritating.

He added to his catalogue of English frustration with two more decisive three-figure scores in the 2008 series - 107 in the follow-on at Lord's to blunt England's attack and lay the platform for an ultimately comfortable and opponent-sapping draw; and a series-winning, career-defining unbeaten 154 at Edgbaston, one of the finest innings of the millennium so far. As an England fan, both innings were massively irritating.

His fifth hundred on these shores was at The Oval in the first Test of 2012. He and Amla laid the foundations for South Africa's 637 for 2, grinding England's previously-all-conquering bowling attack into a pulp in their wildly different styles, a good-cop-bad-cop combination that was like watching Margot Fonteyn dance with a rhinoceros. As an England fan, it was massively irritating. His record against England is the best of any Test opener of the last 50 years, and surpassed before then only by Bobby Simpson and Bruce Mitchell.

He was, massively irritatingly, less dominant against the other leading Test nations of the era than he was against England, but still scored significant runs in South Africa's two series wins in Australia, and his record outside his home country (17 centuries, average 55) stands comparison with the best in Test history.

There were times when he was almost comically vulnerable to swing, as when Matthew Hoggard left him face down in Johannesburg, as if he was desperately searching for his lucky termite Nigel in a crack in the patch, whilst the umpire's finger rose majestically skywards. As an England fan, however, these sporadic failings served only to make his triumphs against us all the more massively irritating. And all the more impressive. If Jacques Kallis was a one-man walking coaching manual, Smith often appeared to be the product of a rogue laboratory experiment to design a robot to teach young children what not to do whilst batting. Hands, arms, legs clodding off in all directions. Bat clumping down at mathematically unfeasible angles. Ball pounding the midwicket fence when it should by rights have been nestling in third slip's hands.

Despite his technique from the outer reaches of peculiarity, Smith's extraordinary eye (he has also pouched of 169 catches, mostly at slip), and his even more extraordinary will, generally prevailed. He averaged 61 in South Africa's Test victories, only fractionally less than Kallis, Amla and de Villiers (although, with fewer not outs, Smith scored more runs per innings in his team's wins than any of his Protean contemporaries and most of his predecessors).

He has been the undisputed statistical Caesar of the fourth-innings chase - 1141 runs (comfortably an all-time record) at an average of 87, with four centuries (Ponting, with three, is the only other player with more than two) and a total of ten scores of 50 or more (Ponting, Langer and Hayden are behind him, with seven each).

As a batsman, he was cussed, dangerous, ugly and skilful, a master of the crux of a match. Yes, he batted with the elegance and refinement of a motorway pile-up. Aesthetically, for what that is worth, he was a Frankenstein's Kirsten. But in terms of his transformatory impact on matches and series, he has been one of the great Test batsmen of the 21st century.

* Graeme Smith may not be the only player bowing out of Test cricket in this match, if the lurid descriptions of Ryan Harris' crumbling fruitcake of a knee are anything to go by. Hopefully, the wonders of modern surgery and/or some well-targeted witchcraft will ensure that this match will not mark the end of his belated Test career, but if it does prove to be so, he is likely to leave having carved an eternal statistical niche in the game. As I write (before the fourth day's play), Harris needs one more wicket to become the first ever pace bowler to take 100 Test wickets having made his debut after his 30th birthday.

Admittedly, this statistical niche is itself "niche", and the Test-packed schedule of the last few decades has made such as achievement more likely than in earlier times, but it is still a remarkable achievement by the late-blooming, mountainously-shouldered craftsman of curve.

(Previously, the closest any 30-something debutant had come to taking 100 Test scalps was Harris' recent baggy-green predecessor Stuart Clark, with 94 wickets; few others have come close. Five spinners have done so - inter-war wristspin wizard Clarrie Grimmett, Bruce Yardley (both Australia), Dilip Doshi (India), Mohammad Rafique (Bangladesh) and Pakistan's current tweakmaster Saeed Ajmal.) (Here endeth the stat.) (Some time after it might have ended.)

Harris' 99 wickets thus far have come at an average of 23.1. He would be the 24th Australian to reach the 100-Test-wicket milestone since Alan Davidson in 1960. The great left-armer's average when he took his 100th was 20. Assuming Harris takes his 100th before conceding 58 more runs, he will become only the second of those 24 to reach 100 wickets with an average below 23.5. The only Australian in the last 50 years to take his first 100 Test wickets at a better average than Harris was Jason Gillespie (22.1). (Here endeth another stat.) (Are you still there?)

* The ECB has announced that, in protest at Russian actions in the Ukraine, England are retroactively boycotting the 2013-14 Ashes. The unremittingly official ECB spokespersonage Harculian Javes explained: "What Putin is doing is completely unacceptable. Bang out of order. In the great tradition of politically motivated sports boycotts, therefore, we are withdrawing from the recent Ashes series, in order to send a message to Mr Putin that English cricket will not tolerate his flagrant disregard for international law. Nor would we have tolerated it last November, when the Ashes began. The series has now been ruled null and void. England therefore hold the Ashes once more. If Mr Putin does not withdraw Russian troops from Crimea immediately, we will be left with no option but to also boycott the 2006-07 Ashes. The time has come to take a stand."

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer