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

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