July 19, 2012

Respect to Biff

Graeme Smith has been a figure easy to misunderstand. That should not hide the fact that he is among the toughest, most intelligent cricketers around - and a great batsman to boot

There are only two players called Graeme in the annals of South African Test cricket. In fact, one is named after the other. Both bat left-handed and both are renowned for hitting the ball with a controlled fury that suggests they never want to lay eyes on the offending orb ever again.

Pollock is the surname of one of these Graemes, and there will be no quibble that he is among the greatest players ever to pick up a bat - even though he earned just 23 caps for a team that purported to represent a country whose laws forbade, on racial grounds, trying to discover if batsmen better than or even as good as him were to be found within its borders.

The other Graeme is on the verge of playing his 100th Test. He has scored 8042 runs with 24 centuries for an average of 49.64. Currently he is ranked the tenth best batsman in the game but he has been perched as high as second in the past.

He has opened the batting in 96 of his 99 Tests and among active players only Virender Sehwag's 51.64 is a higher average than the 50.69 Smith has achieved when taking guard at the top of the order.

This Graeme has a higher career average as an opener than Sunil Gavaskar, Geoffrey Boycott, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Chris Gayle and Graham Gooch. He is the game's leading run scorer among active openers - Sehwag is eight runs behind him - and on the all-time list only Gavaskar, Matthew Hayden, Boycott and Gooch have been more prolific.

Despite having to take on fresh bowlers armed with a new ball on pitches at their juiciest, he has been part of 25 century stands, nine double-century stands, three triple-century stands, and a quadruple-century stand. That means he has helped push a partnership past three figures more than a fifth of the time he has gone out to bat. This helps explain why he has been run out only twice in his 174 innings.

More than all that, his imposing frame moving malevolently from the boundary to the crease makes a menacing sight for opponents. He strides with legs like the pillars of a cathedral and shoulders big and wide enough to knock down the same, all the while aiming his anvil of a jaw at the world and staring a dark hole through it.

Then he slices a deep groove across the crease using the edge of his mighty boot, bobs into a half-crouch, tucks his jaw behind his right shoulder, sticks out his backside, and proceeds to play some of the most unpretty strokes known to batsmanship.

Unpretty, that is, in the sense that they jar with the received aesthetics of how a cricket ball should be stroked. Or even with the unreceived aesthetics. In fact, it would be fair to say that his batting is denuded of anything so frivolous as aesthetics.

But as the numbers above prove, that does not stop him from treating bowlers as if they were a disease he has come to cure. There is a singular brutality in the way he hits a cricket ball that must make the uninitiated wonder whether they should call the police. Sometimes, when he is batting with the kind of intent that veers close to illegal, what with that unashamedly round-handed grip and his utter refusal to add a dash of finesse to anything, the ground does indeed resemble a crime scene.

Allied to all that is a spirit that rivals Mark Boucher's for competitiveness, and a mean streak that he sometimes makes no attempt to hide. He does not have Jacques Kallis' pure class (then again, who does?) nor AB de Villiers' pure talent (ditto), but he has a lot more besides that is often more valuable to his team than class, talent or both. He is a champion among champions and the South African team wouldn't be half the unit it is without him.

He is Graeme Smith and he should be a bona fide modern great. Should be, but isn't. Not where it counts: in the hearts and minds of many of those who decide such things. That would be us, cricket's great unwashed mass of professional and amateur opinionistas.

The reasons are many and complex but they boil down to the awkward truth that Smith brings out the worst in people. Not nearly all people, mind, but enough for what should be a comfortable stroll into the pantheon to be strewn with speedbumps and hairpin bends. His defenders are legion and easily outnumber his detractors, but the negative noise about Smith is significant and constant. In fact, a figure more loved as well as unloved would be difficult to find anywhere in the game.

Many of the reasons for this are rooted in the image Smith projected in his first few years as South Africa's captain. The man he followed, Shaun Pollock, was rational, gentlemanly and dispassionate - more Henry Kissinger than Henry V. Having succeeded the corrupt betrayer Hansie Cronje, Pollock had no choice but to be what was required.

So it was with Smith. When he was appointed, in the gloom of South Africa's first-round exit from their own World Cup in 2003, a strong, uncompromising, partisan voice was needed. Smith gave the country that voice, loud and clear. Sometimes too loudly and too clearly. He wore an overtly honest heart on his sleeve, often to extremes.

His default setting was bullishness and it took little prompting to crank that up to belligerence. He gave the media and the public a caricature of what they demanded, and no one complained. After Cronje's deviousness and Pollock's diplomacy, a bloke who told us what he bloody well thought and to hell with anything else was exactly what we wanted.

People think of Smith as an emotional oaf because he chews gum like a nightclub bouncer and doesn't blink in the heat of a confrontation. Then he says something to make them understand that they are dealing with a particularly sharp-witted man who isn't afraid to take them on

But as the painful memories of the Cronje and Pollock eras eased so the tolerance of Smith's rough edges melted away. What was once seen as charm was changed to churlishness; boyishness became boorishness; he wasn't strong, he was stifling. By the time Smith mellowed into his role and found the breathing space required to infuse his dealings with the real world with humour, it was too late. When he relaxed further and became one of the most insightful and articulate observers of the game, few noticed. He was big, bad Biff, and his type was cast.

In this he is, in large part, a victim of an age in which cricketers are conditioned not to say or do anything that could upset sponsors, broadcasters, the public, administrators, the opposition or anyone else who could be described as a stakeholder in the game. "Media training" means being taught to make only the blandest of pronouncements to the press, and if a gloss of enthusiasm is applied to these nothingnesses, even better. So much so that when players do stand out as individuals, they risk being misunderstood as rebels, or worse. Not true? How many disapprove of Sreesanth because of what they think they can gather of his personality from the stands, or of Lasith Malinga because of his mad mop of hair?

By the same token, people think of Smith as an emotional oaf because he chews gum like a nightclub bouncer and doesn't blink in the heat of a confrontation. Then he says something to make them understand that they are dealing with a particularly sharp-witted man who isn't afraid to take them on. That makes Smith as tough an opponent off the field as on it. It also makes him less likeable for those who prefer their cricketers to be untouchably aloof - all the better to be able to make up their minds about them on the flimsiest evidence and to influence others to do the same.

Smith will not allow that. Instead, he engages, argues, berates, belittles, offends, gets things badly wrong, gets them spectacularly right, soars to triumph in the time it takes to walk out to bat with a broken hand, and crashes to earth again by not understanding why a nation needs to see him come home with his team after they have made a mess of another World Cup campaign.

He shows more humanity than entire teams of other players put together, which means he is capable of driving this reporter clean around the twist with his all too ordinary actions and utterances in certain situations. He is also able to send me into orbits of praise for the clear-eyed, epic leadership he unfurls just when his team and his country need it most.

But sometimes Smith the captain seems to wield a personality so big it seems to eclipse the very existence of Smith the batsman. Who can blame observers for struggling to separate them? They should try harder, because Smith is at least as great a batsman as the other Graeme, and he has proved it. Give him his respect and his credit. He has earned no less than that.

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa