January 8, 2009

Hail Biff the brave

Surely after his heroics on the last day in Sydney, Graeme Smith must own the hearts of all South Africa?

Bloodied but unbowed: Smith takes a bone-shattering blow for South Africa on day two in Sydney © Getty Images

Ironically the likelihood came after an innings of only 3, following many months of admirably swollen scores. Just as ironically, it came in valorous defeat, 10 gut-wrenching balls from stalemate escape, after his engineering of a mounting rack of sizzling triumphs.

Was Wednesday, 7 January, 2009, finally the day when Graeme Smith unanimously won the affection of his nation?

If frantic online sports chatter in South Africa in the hours after the Sydney sizzler is anything to go by, this may well be the case: detractors were falling over each other to make their Damascene conversions to his fan club, some confessing in animated detail to the prior folly of their ways.

No, not even Smith's series-swaying 154 not out on a near-violent turner at Edgbaston last year had swung all knockers to his discipleship. Who would ever have thought that a 17-ball three at the SCG, batting at No 11, would intoxicatingly do the trick? If a solid lobby does still refuse to join the Smithy salaams, it is fiercely tempting to inquire: bloody heck, what more must Biff do to secure them?

He has won a Proteas series in England for the first time since the Beatles induced shrieks of hysterical mid-sixties adulation, he has won in Australia for the first time ever, and even banked it safely before the drama of this Sydney encounter, which barely deserved the uncomplimentary tag of "dead rubber".

Through it all his commanding, assuring and advisory voice has boomed, and his heavy blade blasted - he was the most prosperous batsman on the planet, remember, for the last calendar year. That is no cursory, pooh-pooh-able stat. Nor the fact that he would become a popular choice as player-of-the-series after the wonderful theatre Down Under.

And all the while he has lived on a near-monotonous and debilitating personal diet of jabs and pills, effectively caressing his own engine trickily on fumes as the gauge increasingly threatened to show "empty".

On Wednesday he took his devotion to the South African cause one step further, into the realm of courageous near-insanity. His various doctors would have winced, and they aren't even the ones with the multi-pronged pain or impediment. They simply scribble out the array of patch-up prescriptions for one Mr GC Smith.

He arrived for the last day of the final Test, still plastered to the top of the left forearm, and not even with his Test whites in tow. But those competitive juices - remarkable, in themselves, considering the aforementioned lack of petrol - began to stir, by his after-match confession, some 25 overs from possible Proteas survival for a brilliant draw.

"I started to think about it," was his understated take on things.

Since "courage" is the password to his own kingdom, he would have richly approved of the ninth-wicket fortitude offered by Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini, as thunder clouds swirled and lightning flashed in the distance but never quite made it to the SCG.

Not that it needed only advancing weather systems to get the Aussies sweating agonisingly under their baggy greens: dropped catches and several brushes with the stump paintwork were enough to do that, as Steyn played with a straight bat and Ntini with uncustomary but highly praiseworthy restraint.

They thought it was all over when Steyn was finally adjudged leg-before-wicket to Andrew McDonald following a 50 partnership. But then Smith crumpled his sick note, and the Members Pavilion roared - yes, roared rather than gasped, despite all Australians' desperation for a victory - as his unmistakably fulsome frame came into view, descending the stairs to the compelling conflict zone.

The job remained a daunting one, even if a definite, succulent whiff of a draw was starting to fill South African television rooms: 8.2 overs remained to attempt to see it through.

It was quickly clear that Smith was going to be able - just - to apply both hands to the handle, which further gladdened Proteas fans' hearts. But it also deepened the dilemma: did it mean the superior batsman should try to monopolise the strike? Or should it be primarily left to the supposed "rabbit" Ntini, albeit an increasingly assured and unflappable rabbit?

Smith crumpled his sick note, and the Members Pavilion roared - yes, roared rather than gasped, despite all Australians' desperation for a victory - as his unmistakably fulsome frame came into view

These were uncharted waters, and even the Australians were beginning to behave eccentrically, with comical moments of indiscretion in the field, and a mysteriously dawdling tendency that might have fatally deprived them of an extra over or two at the dogged South African pair.

Smith did see plenty of the strike in the gathering gloom - yet red-hot temperature -within the ground, trying manfully to look as orthodox as he could despite occasional impact-induced shockwaves through his injured hand when facing the quicker bowlers.

Somehow, one always felt the trench would eventually be surrendered. And when Mitchell Johnson (an apt customer, considering his ceaseless series endeavour and that it was he who first shattered the tender metacarpal) speared one through Smith's reflex-dimmed defences off a crack in the second-last over, a famous, gutsy cameo was concluded and a consolation Test match seized by Australia.

Fair dinkum, don't you think?

Pundit Jeremy Fredericks can get a little carried away at times in SuperSport's Johannesburg studio, but many will concur that he got this observation bang-on: "I hope they give Graeme the freedom of Cape Town." Smith is scheduled to arrive back in the Mother City late on Thursday night. You would hope there will be the proverbial "somebody there to meet him".

South Africa may have lost this Test match, another in an expanding tapestry of epics featuring them, but they served further notice, rather than any receding message, that they are the new toughies of world cricket.

And Graeme Smith is at the epicentre of it all. A cruelly bland "bowled Johnson 3" alongside his name on the final-day scoreboard doesn't change that fact one iota …

This article first appeared on www.Sport24.co.za, where Robert Houwing is chief writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • gerard on January 9, 2009, 12:43 GMT

    Hats of to Smith. A great effort. SA deserved at least a draw. But what the heck, a dead rubber, Australia playing against ten men, The usual Sydney fare of dodgy catches, and dubious umpiring decisions going in favor of Australia.a hallow victory.Smiths effort ranks with two brave moments in cricketing history. Kumble getting Lara out bowling with a broken jaw in the West Indies and Malcom Marshall hitting a four and latter bowling England out one handed in the seventies.

  • SRINI on January 9, 2009, 7:31 GMT

    My hats off to Graeme 'Courageous' Smith.

    Smith did what a skipper - real leader - is expected to do. Fight for the nation, team and himself till the last ounce of energy is left in him/her.

    I was sure he wd do that given the inspirational leadership he has provided to a committed team of talented players and the drive he has instilled in all of them to 'go, knock out Australia'.

    When Test cricket is becoming a subject of despair for lack of popular support (read: in-stadium viewers), the Smith Act has served to create a folklore that would go a long way in sustaining interest in Test cricket. For more than anything else, it is the grandeur and glory of Test cricket that inspires such stirring selfless and stupendous moves as the dramatic entry of Graeme Smith as #11 batsman to lead his team and his country with a bravehart. Th parallel is Anil Kumble taking field with a strapped jaw and bowling to dismiss Brian Lara before flying back to India hors de combat.

  • Warks on January 9, 2009, 5:59 GMT

    I was thinking there's no way he'd risk further injury by batting in a 'meaningless' dead game but he injected a lot of meaning into it. He won the hearts and minds of Australia and that was probably worth the risk. We're hard to please here but we respect the hard men who don't mouth off. Anyone who says Australian crowds aren't sporting haven't been to a game here. Smith got a great ovation - would have been bigger if the SCG Trust had tried to attract people to the game not send them away with their over the top prices and anti-fun police. Like last year, Tendulkar got a standing ovation all the way to the middle at the SCG - would that happen outside India? Smith will get it again on his next tour I guarantee it!

  • Ben on January 9, 2009, 2:13 GMT

    Watching Graeme Smith walk out to bat at the end of that was truly on of the most inspirational acts in a sporting contest that I have witnessed. It would have been easy to just sit back in the dressing and say "that's it, I'm injured the games over" but by going out, in defiance of medical opinions, his stature in the world of cricket has increased enormously. If that doesn't inspire South Africa onto the number 1 ranking then nothing well. Well done S.A. on a great series and to Smith, the premier international captain at the moment. (I'm an aussie by the way too.)

  • Liam on January 9, 2009, 1:00 GMT

    I am unable to comment whether or not has won the hearts of all South Africans but I can tell you this, he has won over the cricket fans of Australia. Congratulations South Africa and vale Graham Smith, see you in S.A. next month for another great series.

  • Sahil on January 8, 2009, 23:33 GMT

    Graeme Smith is what every young cricketer should look at, play with passion, and play for the team. He played not only with the broken hand, remember he also had a fractured rib that he is still recovering from, and the elbow of course. The amount of pain he was in, was probably more than Anil Kumble infamously playing with a broken jaw against the West Indies. Smith's got my support, what a man.

  • Andrew on January 8, 2009, 20:57 GMT

    I recall Colin Cowdrey coming in during the last over of the 1963 Lords test England v. West Indies. That was even more of a nailbiter, as all four results were possible as the last over started with England needing 8 to win and two wickets left, but one being Cowdrey with a broken arm earlier sustained from Wes Hall. First was a dot ball, second England scrambled a single, third ball they eked out another. Three balls left, five to tie, six to win. Fourth ball Derek Shackleton was run out. Cowdrey came in, fortunately the non-striker, and Allen play out the last two safely to end with a draw. A great ending to a great game - memorably recalled in The West Indies at Lords by Alan Ross.

  • Damien on January 8, 2009, 19:59 GMT

    Stunning, just stunning. As an Australian, I can never be happy accepting defeat. But, as anyone can tell you, Australians love a contest. Although the Aussies have now been the vanquished in some of crickets greatest ever series, I can only say that Graeme Smith is my hero! I only got to follow the game via the Internet, but what amazing sporting drama. An earlier post tried to downplay Smith's contribution to the annals of sporting legend. Well, without downplaying the heroism of messers Lillee, McKosker, Border, Waugh and (Almost) Langer, for someone playing away from home- without the crowd and the atmosphere to help them grow that extra leg, I can't believe that anyone would try and downplay such heroics. Sure, an Australian would be expected to do it, but that doesn't make the act any less remarkable. Hats off to you Graeme. I just hope that the Australians can give your team as good a run for your money when we travel to the cape!

  • Daniel on January 8, 2009, 19:04 GMT

    Smith is indeed a brave and inspirational captain and the very definition of a team player, unlike his compatriot Kevin Pietersen. That is how you win the respect of your players, Kevin, not by demanding the sacking of your coach and meglomaniacally trying to jostle for as much power as possible.

  • Faisal on January 8, 2009, 18:59 GMT

    Playing under an injury is always a brave act. It shows that the player puts the country above all others. Smith will earn more respect from his team mates. But, this has not happened the first time. Salim Malik one haded with a broken arm against the mighty West Indies in 1986. Pakistan needed to increase the lead and when the 9th wicket fell, the umpires started to walk towards the dressing room. But, to their and everyone else's astonishment, in came Salim Malik with his left arm in plaster. The first ball he faced was the last ball of the over from Walsh. The bat fell down but Malik survived. This gave Wasim Akram a chance to play the next ver and in doing so he smashed Marshal for a six. A rare sight. Malik then started to bat with his right arm and in doing so he came to a point where single handedly he drove the ball to extracover. Those were the days. That was an awesome feat of bravery against the likes of Marshal, Walsh, Tony Gray.

  • No featured comments at the moment.