August 18, 2010

Older, wiser and lighter

Smith is about as big as anyone in South African cricket should be allowed to get. Now that he's stepping down, the team will be forced to seriously look at a future without him

Graeme Smith is growing up. That is the essence of his decision to start stepping away from his leadership role in South African cricket.

"Someone said to me the other day that I've captained South Africa for my whole 20s," Smith told a news conference in Johannesburg on Wednesday. His eyes lit up in surprise at the realisation of the near fact - he was, in fact, appointed at 22 and is now 29 - that he has spent a significant chunk of his youth doing a job that has traditionally been the preserve of someone older and, by implication, wiser.

"It took me a long time to learn to be myself under pressure," he said.

Smith, who turns 30 in six months' time, is hardly a greybeard. But he has a veteran's tough attitude. "I'd like to add value to the team, but I'd like to give whoever the new leader is the chance to make his own mistakes."

Further evidence of his maturity came with the announcement of the establishment of the Graeme Smith Foundation, an initiative that will seek to groom leaders for the future in sport and beyond. That's right, Graeme, the unthinkable is true - the world really is bigger than cricket. Welcome to it.

That Smith will stay on as Test captain and take South Africa to the 2011 World Cup, as well as remain available for selection in all formats, is excellent news for the Proteas. The plain truth is that they need him, for while Smith is getting on with growing up, his team - and the mindset of South Africa's cricket culture - is too often still stuck in sophomoric second gear. Their lack of success in ICC tournaments is painful evidence of that.

Smith is the only South African captain to have led his team to a Test series victory in Australia. Should South Africa triumph at the World Cup next year, he will probably never have to pay for a drink in this country for the rest of his life. An argument can be made for Smith being part of the problems that face South Africa just as he is part of the solution. But here's the killer question: where would South Africa be without him? None of the answers are pretty.

An argument can be made for Smith being part of the problems that face South Africa just as he is part of the solution. But here's the killer question: where would South Africa be without him?

Smith has come a long way since the captaincy was thrust at him in the bleak days after South Africa managed not to advance to the second round of their own World Cup, but he is essentially the same man he was seven years ago. His personality has proved big enough to withstand the consistent barbs of his critics, and his game has proved good enough to keep the criticism, for the most part, at puerile levels.

Johan Botha has stepped into the breach in one-day matches and Twenty20s when Smith has been injured, but until now there has been nary a whisper of him becoming a permanent replacement in either format.

South Africa have played 81 Test matches since Smith took charge. He has been captain in 77 of them, with injury accounting for his absence on the other three occasions. In short, Smith is about as big as anyone in South African cricket should be allowed to get.

As of Wednesday morning, 9am (GMT), he is significantly smaller. For the first time, South Africans - both those who are for and those against him - will start to think seriously of a future that doesn't involve the towering, gum-chewing left-hander.

Smith smiled his way through Wednesday's press conference. The job done, he took his leave of the room leisurely, flattering one greying, unshaven reporter by telling him "you look more like Clint Eastwood every time I see you", and stopping to chat with all who were thus disposed.

To shake Smith's massive hand is to realise how big human beings can get given the right genes and a gym. His huge shoulders nudged through the crowd like a ship's prow as he went. Somehow, they looked less burdened than they have done in a while.

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Scott on August 20, 2010, 10:53 GMT

    Arthaurian - questions such as what?

    If you cannot convey your message without using expletives, then you're just a drama queen. I see no "hidden messages" or "smoke screens" or whatever crazy conspiracies you might have dreamt up.

    What Smith has acheieved is highly commendable, and by announcing his stepping down from the captaincy the way he has, is honourable and unselfish.

    If you have PROOF that says I'm wrong, then I'd love to hear it. Other than that it's just you and your silly opinion.

  • Eoin on August 19, 2010, 19:55 GMT

    Guys, I choose not to reveal these things in fear of using explicit words, but I will say this. This guy is playing games - oh and the interview was great entertainment. Think back to Shaun Pollocks retirement. He's not retiring from anything. No one really cares who captains the T20 side. Besides he has still made himself available for selection. And this thing of retiring after the world cup? What a waste of time. ..." to prolong my career.."??? There are some questions that you need to as yourselves.

  • Duncan on August 19, 2010, 17:37 GMT

    Look at what happened to Kallis when he was freed from the responsibility/burden of being the anchor for the batting lineup, lets hope Smith can focus on batting, Telford is right about Smith looking burdened. I wonder if a more subtle strategic leader will be chosen? I have always felt that Lead-from-the-front is so ego driven and forceful that it makes the team predictable. Who knows though we are all on the side-lines after all.

  • Martin on August 19, 2010, 11:40 GMT

    Telford, neem asseblief die 'TEL' van 'Telford' weg: 77 plus 3 = 81 !!! Where's the missing Test?

  • Amit on August 19, 2010, 11:13 GMT

    The end of WC 2011 will mark the beginning of a new era. We should expect a lot of cricketers bowing out after the WC. Graeme Smith has been a valiant leader of a South African side which has shown promise but not delivered at key moments. That, unfortunately, might be the legacy which Smith leaves behind.

  • Scott on August 19, 2010, 8:40 GMT

    So whats the real reason, Arthaurian?

  • Dummy4 on August 19, 2010, 7:59 GMT

    Devilliers or Amla should be good choice as successors.. both are capable and level headed.. but Amla's chances seem bleak..

  • Ross on August 19, 2010, 7:39 GMT

    Smith was not the best T20 captain. His style of captaincy is about leading from the front, and T20 is simply too short and too variable for him to do that. His T20 batting might actually improve if he doesn't have to worry about whether the team will fall if he does. SA's problems in T20 is all strategy related, and though the captain played a part in that, he wasn't the only one. People need to be assigned specific roles in the team and the team and management needs to back them in those roles, which they will fail in occasionally due to the nature of the game.

  • diren on August 19, 2010, 7:37 GMT

    peope dont see there is more to being a captain than just setting the field and calling the correct coin toss..... Smith was a leader in every other way, when he walked out to bat you could see and feel his determination. We knew SA could win any game when he strided to the crease He took the pressure and all his critics to the cleaners as he became more experienced and we grew to love the man .It will be hard to find a more motivating captain. The possitive asspect is that he can now concentrate on his batting.....who knows...maybe by the time he retires he will become the greatest opening batsmen the world has seen

  • Billy on August 19, 2010, 3:42 GMT

    Arthaurian, at least explain your post rather than hide under some conspiracy theory which you don't explain. Personally, I think it is a good decision by Graeme Smith. He is well placed to lead South Africa into a new era as world champions, starting with this summer against the Indian cricket team. He is also well placed to break a few records if he stays healthy and fit over the next 7 or so years.

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