August 12, 2008

Biff collars the respect

Even his fiercest critics will now have to salute Graeme Smith

Man in the middle: de Villiers may have more runs but Smith's contributions have been more crucial by far to South Africa's win © Getty Images

Can being on the wincing rather than the whooping end of a six-wicket, final-Test outcome at The Oval ever have been, in the final analysis, so sweet for Graeme Smith?

After all, his South African team strives ever more obsessively to emulate or eclipse Australia, and if it means surrendering a wind-down, dead-rubber Test in England - something the world's long-time No. 1 power are surprisingly "good" at - then so be it. Maybe England purposefully discovering their boogie shoes, under the strains of DJ KP, after the cleaners had swept the dance-floor, only served to remind Smith satisfyingly of the magnitude of his team's prior achievement.

If you had apologetically told the robust South Africa captain upon departure for their English campaign that his country would extend its unfortunate history of Oval victory bids to nought from 13 in the series climax, that his ace batting lieutenant, Jacques Kallis, would average 14.85, and his most venomous strike bowler, Dale Steyn, miss precisely half of the summer's hostilities, a demoralised "damn and blast" in response might not have been altogether surprising.

Why, you could even have extended the seemingly apocalyptic portrait by venturing that his men would follow on, 346 runs behind, in the signature first encounter at Lord's. By then "Biff" Smith may have been severely tempted to crumple his boarding pass for Heathrow. But you'd have omitted the contrastingly delicious, all-important middle elements, wouldn't you?

You might also, especially if you were a notoriously hard-to-please South African supporter, have underestimated - not for the first time in his still only six-year Test career -- Smith's pure-platinum pluck.

The decisive individual contribution to South Africa's 2-1 taking of the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy has got to be a rank no-brainer: Captain Courageous' withering, ice-cool fourth-innings 154 not out at Edgbaston, when it looked for all money as if South Africa's penchant for fading into anaemic disorder in England was about to cloud their landscape yet again.

It's a funny old thing, but as much as a solid lobby of English and other international critics consider South Africans lucky to have him, Graeme Craig Smith, 27, does not get consistently wholehearted reviews among folk shuffling coals and nursing frigid brown bottles around braais. Yes, even after all he has done for the Proteas, with his own boss-drum blade and in terms of the mounting silverware under his charge.

Indeed, a more strident, unsmiling constituency would not be averse to labelling him windgat. It is a reasonably crude, ingloriously South African term, pertaining to a fairly private part of the anatomy and suggesting someone who is prone to gaseous, unsubtle self-confidence, if you like. The less judgmental among us might be much more inclined to omit the bit of the charge to do with flatulence; nobody denies the "confident" part to Biff's make-up, and perhaps some are jealous of it.

But it is difficult to imagine that now, finally, the national captain has not won over a solid raft of the inflexible knockers. The Battle of Birmingham ought to have done the trick, and if it hasn't then some people are terminally miserable asses - and we take our leave now of any lingering toilet imagery.

Whatever happens from this picturesque curve on the road in Smith's cricket career, his legacy on at least one important battlefront is assured: when last South Africa won a series in England, in 1965, it was some 16 years before he was even born in Johannesburg, so the wait has been irksome and extended. Achieving it did not come without personal sacrifice. For what it's worth, Smith has been quoted as saying his surprisingly ongoing, apparently confirmed bachelorhood is partly a product of his "eat, sleep and breathe cricket" regime in the long lead-up to this finally-cross-the-bridge success. His health hasn't always been at optimum levels, either. He is the sort of person who will pick up a virus on tour somewhere on the planet and play despite its lingering, debilitating effects for a month or two, not just a fortnight.

When he did an obligatory fitness test on his troublesome back shortly before Edgbaston hostilities began, it is whispered that he "failed" pretty convincingly: it would not surprise this writer if he grabbed the supposed checklist, defiantly ticked the relevant slots and told his physio: "Stuff it. I play, and that's that on the matter."

Commentators couldn't understand why Smith stubbornly refused to have midwicket solidly policed against Pietersen. They changed their tune as Smith continued to give KP some degree of batting slack, yet choked the freedom of men around him in what proved to be ultimately glorious pursuit of bigger-picture success

He is his own man and that almost certainly won't change. His captaincy earned some brickbats in the Lord's Test, when England amassed their 593 for 8 and Kevin Pietersen ran amok: commentators couldn't understand why Smith stubbornly refused to have midwicket solidly policed against Pietersen's meat-and-drink liking for the general area, and the trend barely shifted for much of the series. They changed their tune as Smith continued to give KP some degree of batting slack, yet choked the freedom of a few men around him in what proved to be ultimately glorious pursuit of bigger-picture success.

With his 369 series runs at 61.50, second by a short head for South Africa to AB de Villiers in both volume and average, the booming left-hander also moved back to within a whisker of a 50 average overall from 70 Tests - not bad for a player some snigger at for his apparent rocks-in-his-socks footwork and a perilous occasional falling-over problem.

What's more, he is right up there with some of the best modern Test top-order dominators of the southern hemisphere for strike-rate: his 60.91 is better than Matthew Hayden's 60.12 and Ricky Ponting's 59.04.

Later this year Smith will lead his confident, overwhelmingly settled platoon to another stab at an Australian fortress which may, finally, have a tangibly shallower moat around it.

South Africa's top seven batting positions presently offer no room at all for audacious pretenders. The pace attack will soon benefit again from Steyn - Morne Morkel and Andre Nel huff and puff industriously but do not truly, compellingly blow houses down. And the search for a turning, scheming spinner to unseat Paul "Hold an end Harro" Harris possibly continues on the quiet.

But those are thoughts for another day.

Surely Graeme Smith will come home in a few weeks, whatever the outcome of the ODI sideshow in England, to an unusually widespread volley of cheers and high-fives?

If not, there is simply no justice.

Robert Houwing is chief writer for in South Africa