ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
World Cup 2011
Smith the devastated captain ends it where it began
It's been a memorable stint for Graeme Smith who, self-admittedly, has lasted longer than most captains do. But it is the inability to win a world title that will taint his stint as captain of one of the best South African ODI sides
March 26, 2011
Dhaka is going to be to Graeme Smith what Paris was to Lynn Barber. Barber, now a British journalist and whose story inspired the movie An Education, was whisked off to the capital of France when she was fresh out of school by an older man. There she learnt about the joys, and the heartache, of adulthood. There, she let life embrace her and realised how much can be lost when that embrace is broken. The same happened to Smith in the Bangladeshi capital.
Smith started off his career as captain in Dhaka, during an ODI tri-series which also involved India. He was, in cricketing terms, not even out of school, having played the same number of ODIs as his age up to that point. Eight years later, he had just crossed the threshold into his 30s and was leading the team into what was supposed to be their defining campaign as World Cup contenders. It didn't turn out that way and when he walked out onto the Shere Bangla field for the quarter-final against New Zealand, he was walking out to play his last match as captain. It ended, as it had begun, in Dhaka.
It's been a memorable period for Smith who, self-admittedly, has lasted longer than most captains do. He has collected series wins over countries, both home and away, in almost as carefree a fashion as a little girl skipping along plucking flowers. It didn't start that way. Shortly after Smith took over, South Africa lost series to New Zealand and Sri Lanka away from home. It was the shaky period of his captaincy, when he still wasn't sure how to strike the balance between bullish and a bully.
As the years wore on and Smith matured, mellowed and moulded himself into a real leader, he was at the helm of South Africa's regular wallopings of Zimbabwe and West Indies. He also conquered Pakistan, England, India and even Australia.
Yes, even Australia. The 438 game which South Africa came out on top of was the closest Smith came to winning a final. It was the decider in a five-match series and after South Africa's bowlers had conceded 434, it looked as though it would be another final they could not win. Smith was part of the reason they did. He scored 90 and along with Herschelle Gibbs' 175, laid the platform for a famous win.
The true tests of his leadership came in more tense situations and although South Africa, the team, has not been able to overcome pressure in an ICC event yet, Smith the man has. One of his stand-out moments as captain came in the Champions Trophy 2009. South Africa were chasing 324 against England in a must-win situation and Smith, tired of all the ICC-trophy failures, decided that he would take them over the line himself. He blasted 141, while no other batsman managed more than 36. When Smith reached three figures, South Africa believed. He was their captain fantastic, who would bat with a broken hand if need be, and if he was there, all was well.
But when he fell, off a top edge, the end was in sight. He walked off the Centurion field that day to a standing ovation and when he acknowledged the crowd and the sky, with a tear in his eye, it was clear the team meant more to Smith than any hundred ever could. South Africa lost the match by 22 runs and bowed out of another ICC event without getting close to the silverware.
Smith was devastated; it was a devastation he came to know when he firmed up his spot in the squad, as a replacement for Jonty Rhodes in the 2003 World Cup, one that haunted his tenure as captain and was there again at the end. It is the inability to win a world title that will taint Smith's stint as captain of one of the best ODI sides in South Africa's history.
Still, Smith is not planning on disappearing from the ODI set up, and is available for selection for the limited-overs sides, both 20 and 50 overs. "I feel like I still have a lot to offer SA cricket. I am looking forward to carrying on as a batter and a senior player," he said. He has already performed the role of a senior player in the Twenty20 squad, which Johan Botha has been captaining since August last year, and said that he enjoyed being in the outfield and being freed of responsibility.
Smith's form in ODIs in the last 12 months has dipped. His average, since March last year, has hovered just above 30, a fair bit away from the 40 he usually has. In 2011, in 12 ODIs, he has averaged 28.25 and has struggled, looking scratchy at the crease. He hopes that without the captain's armband, he can work on his own technique and capitalise on his skills as his career reaches mid-life and then winds down. "Hopefully I can go away now and work on a few things and come back stronger in the later part of my career."
He believes that he leaves the role with South African cricket "in a really exciting period." Despite the disappointment of not winning in the knockout phase Smith said that players like Faf du Plessis and Imran Tahir make for a strong South African future. "If they keep those core bases in place and allow these guys to really develop, there is an exciting period ahead. The bowling in particular, the emergence of spinners and Dale [Steyn] and Morne [Morkel] are going from strength to strength." The batting may still need some hardening up, which an in-form Smith can provide. Apart from experience at the top, Smith also hopes to be able to be the shoulder on which his successor can lean on. "I want to be a good support to the guy who gets the opportunity in the future."
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