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