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