February 1, 2013

Graeme Smith, colossus

South Africa's captain does not perhaps get as much credit for his team's current stature as he deserves

By 2003, South Africa's misadventures at the World Cup, while not as infamous as now, had begun to acquire an unmistakable pattern. An opportunity at home to erase the trauma of the Klusener-Donald run-out had been squandered, unbelievably, due to a misunderstanding over whether the Duckworth-Lewis figure was a par score or a victory target. Amid the disappointment of another early exit - and nobody does disappointment as intensely as the South Africans do - Gary Kirsten joined us in our studio at Bloubergstrand just outside Cape Town. Then, as now, he was thoughtful and soft-spoken, and suggested, much to our amazement, that South Africa's future lay in going with a little-known young man called Graeme Smith as captain.

Smith had played eight Tests, all at home, and while two big hundreds suggested a promising future, nobody deposits hope on someone as untested as he was then. Smith wasn't even in the original World Cup team, and to suggest that he take over a side with many senior, and hugely accomplished, players seemed a touch outrageous. But, explained Kirsten, South Africa needed to move beyond Hansie Cronje, rid themselves of his giant shadow and start afresh. Smith was a confident young man, a natural leader, a good-enough cricketer, and, most important, had had no association with Cronje. The impression I got was that he was unblemished. Among his many qualifications, this was an unusual one to be on top of a CV.

Shaun Pollock was the captain then, and he was, and still is, as nice a man as any you can meet in the world of sport. And I wondered that day, and for some time thereafter, whether South Africa almost needed someone more abrasive than gentlemanly; someone who would tear up the past rather than put it away somewhere.

Smith was all that, and in his early years often came hard at his players and the opposition. It didn't always work but he had age on his side, and he was scoring a lot of runs. It bought him time, for leaders must experience the wrongs in order to be able to fashion the rights. By 2007, South Africa were winning much more than they were losing. Indeed in what is an exemplary record, they have only lost one series since and none away. Yes, the curious meltdowns at World Cups continued, and that is something Smith can never get over, but in Test cricket South Africa have been more difficult to beat than anyone else.

Many have got the credit for this; the extraordinary gifts of Jacques Kallis that gave the side the balance no other team in modern times has enjoyed, the emergence of AB de Villiers as a many-splendoured talent, the calm and the brilliance of Hashim Amla, the flowering of Dale Steyn and his partnership with Morne Morkel, even the stunning arrival of Vernon Philander in the last 12 months. But it seemed the halo had passed Smith by. It is difficult to understand.

A hundred Test matches as captain (even if it includes that messy Supertest in Australia) means that you have been good enough to be picked for a start, that you have held the team together in a very complex environment, that you are looked up to, and that you have consistently been rated higher than the next best candidate. By whichever standards you choose, this is a colossal achievement and one that the cricket world needs to salute.

There are signs that Smith is mellowing; fatherhood can change your perspective on most things, and Kallis, Smith's colleague throughout his career, said recently that Smith now knows "when to be which character". It is an interesting assessment suggestive of a less-than-judicious start and a greater understanding of people now. It is easy to forget that he is still only 32, Rahul Dravid only got the captaincy at that age, and people are still growing into leadership roles at 32, if at all, in many other pursuits in life.

As a batsman alone, Smith has been a giant. I looked at three other players who started around the time he did, to put things in perspective. Smith has 8624 runs from 107 Tests at 49.28 with 26 centuries. Michael Clarke, who started a couple of years later and has been rather more celebrated as a cricketer and leader, has 6989 runs from 89 Tests at 52.24 with 22 centuries; Andrew Strauss had 7037 runs from 100 Tests at 40.91, and Virender Sehwag has played 102 Tests for 8559 runs at 50.05 and has 23 centuries. In terms of numbers there is little to choose there, and yet talk of the greatest modern batsmen rarely moves quickly to Smith. It is, I believe, something we are guilty of.

And so, close to ten years into the job, I guess Kirsten was right about him. South African cricket, even as it grapples with many complex issues, is less obsessed with colour, has moved well away from the guilt of the Cronje era, and has a very stable look to its national side. If the team had a chief executive, he would have commanded a hefty bonus for the achievement.

I am not sure anyone will lead his country in a hundred Test matches again. Our view of the future is still largely blurred, and future captains might find there is less emphasis on Test cricket. And it would require another extraordinary sequence of events to assign leadership to one so young.

As he walks out to toss at Johannesburg, Smith can pat himself on the back. He has been a mighty personality in the game and South Africa have much to thank him for.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Emile on February 4, 2013, 12:44 GMT

    Im an South African and has played and watched this game for 22 years. I was just as surprised when a guy only 3 years older than me was given the captaincy of SA. He was granted the chance and rewarded us with pain,joy and a tenacity which inspires a nation. I no longer play but help coach, and try to instill pride as a team builds character and reaches goals set. SA's leadership and team work carried a nations to the #1 spot. 100 test capped with another win makes it more special. Good luck in the upcoming test at Newlands and ur next gift from God.

  • Ravi Kumar on February 4, 2013, 11:26 GMT

    In 2003 when he was made captain, I was surprise. A young man taking charge of a team in a tough situation of exiting the WC 2003.

    He had led them by example and completing 100 tests as captain is an amazing acheivement. He was one player who played aggressively and has some great achivements. I am confident under him SA would continue to be the number 1 team for a significant period of time.

    COngrats to Smith for being a well balanced great leader of a great team.

  • Dummy4 on February 3, 2013, 0:54 GMT

    "I only say decent because I think he's too defensive to be considered a great tactician " Immediately we can see that you're from Aus when you say that. Ever since the SA series win there, Aus fans have been accusing Smith of being too defensive, mainly after Smith's defensive tactics denied Australia opportunities to win the first 2 tests. That's a major credit to him as captain, and of course you're not gonna like it. If you say that the last series win was "unconvincing", then Australia's win in 99 World Cup was also "unconvincing". Unless you'd like to say Australia choked this last test series? Masters of double standards

  • Dummy4 on February 2, 2013, 22:32 GMT

    Smiths the greatest test captain since Border.The guy is ruthless and many an opposition captain and player has been battered into tearful career ending submission.Strauss,Hussain,Vaughan,Hayden and Ponting for starters.Amongst his own players Klusener was dumped and guys like Polly,Gibbs,Prince and Ntini were gradually ousted.His tactical nous is excellent for Smith never had a match winning spinner and for a long time relied on Ntini and Pollock.Slowly the pieces fell together as Steyn,Morkel,A.B and Amla were groomed.Philander was an inspirational addition as was Faf.The only missing element is a match winning spinner and a world cup trophy.Still Smith has been a giant and has led from the front.

  • Rahul on February 2, 2013, 18:17 GMT

    for people who consider 'A captain is as good as his team. Well, a bit more, not much more': A good captain is someone who can utilize the resources available to him optimally. He has done that. He has grouped his team as a cohesive unit, like all previous SA captains, and hence Proteas has always performed as a team. This suggests the quality and leadership of the captain, Smith. If Kirsten could see it in him with only 8 tests for the team, he had it in him from start. And SA always operate quietly. Their success is celebrated comparatively less world wide.

    On the contrary, Dhoni's captaincy is much publicized, each victory celebrated. Many victories have been one man shows & many losses have exposed the lack of team work. Recent dressing room escapades are proof enough.

    If Steyn were to be given to india, he would be the dented arrow. over-utilized and worn out. Fortunately, he is part of a professional team that has nurtured him to what he is today. He is right where he belongs!

  • V.L on February 2, 2013, 17:19 GMT

    A fitting article in tribute to a great leader and a wonderful batsman. You can always be assured that the Saffas are gonna come hard at you at every single test, every single ball. The players show great determination to dig their team out of tough situations(ex:AB and Faf in Aus) and their bowling attack hunts like a pack. If one of them has an off-day, you can be damn sure that he is gonna blow you off the next day. All this comes down to one thing. Morale which in turn is a product of great leadership.Why a a highly skilled team like this with a fantastic leader can't win a single knockout game is beyond me. Perhaps this is the only blemish on an otherwise excellent CV. And those saying he is over-rated, should search statsguru to see which team has done better overseas, admit their mistake look at the mirror and then laugh at themselves for making such a silly statement!

  • Rachit on February 2, 2013, 12:21 GMT

    The best thing from Smith is SA has never lost a Test when Smith scored century.

  • Gez on February 2, 2013, 7:49 GMT

    @ansram... As usual, a cricket topic/discussion has to be hijacked by an Indian fan... "hey, what about me?"... hilarious... Anyways, Smith is an absolutely outstanding leader of men as proven by the length of his tenure. He's an excellent, but not great batsman, and decent tactically. I only say decent because I think he's too defensive to be considered a great tactician like a Mark Taylor, but he obviously has sound cricket knowledge. I also remember the young Smith before the 2005-06 series against Australia making a fool of himself with ridiculous comments pre-series, but he's clearly matured as a man since then and four years later a much more humble Smith led his team to a brilliant series win in Australia. And repeated the dose just a few weeks ago, although I thought they were quite unconvincing in this series.

  • Aditya on February 2, 2013, 7:06 GMT

    @SherjilIslam FYI in that T20 match against WI, Gibbs scored 90 off 55 balls & his highest T20 score is 89*.