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Graeme Smith, colossus

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

Harsha Bhogle

February 1, 2013

Comments: 39 | Text size: A | A

Graeme Smith gives his pre-series press conference, Cape Town, January 1, 2013
Smith has been a giant as a batsman alone; the captaincy has been a bonus © Gallo Images
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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

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Posted by EmileO 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.

Posted by ravi-1967 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.

Posted by   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

Posted by   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.

Posted by raulpills 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!

Posted by maddy20 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!

Posted by rnepal on (February 2, 2013, 12:21 GMT)

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

Posted by Captain_Oblivious 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.

Posted by AdityaUpadhyay 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*.

Posted by venkatesh018 on (February 2, 2013, 6:20 GMT)

The foresight of S African selectors in 2003 needs to be highly admired. Graeme Smith is indeed one of the most under-rated and least acclaimed of modern South African cricketers, along with Jacques Kallis. I know the context and culture in each country is different, but do we still need to have any fear in giving(at least) the Test captaincy to Virat Kohli?

Posted by strudi74 on (February 2, 2013, 4:32 GMT)

I don't know why so many of the posters on here always feel you have to compare players and leaders- this is a tribute to a great servant of SA cricket, a man who has given his youth to take on the responsibility of fulfilling his nations hopes and dreams, so thanks for the article Harsha. Dhoni, Clarke and other world captains may have more success with lesser talents in their team but they have not captained their country in 100 tests and this is what this is about. Graeme has been a great batsman over ten years, especially in crunch situations, and his stats as compared to Clarke, Strauss and Sehwah shows that he in nothing close to average. It would be nice if just now and then the one-eyed fans of certain players and teams take a few minutes to appreciate an enormous achievement of someone other than their own.

Posted by ntalgeri on (February 2, 2013, 4:17 GMT)

People will always be cynical about South Africa because they can never excel in a Knock Out format. Give them a round robin or a league format, and they will excel. But, give them a "Final", and they fare worse than the worst. That's not the hallmark of a champion team. So, unless they can win a few major tournament Finals, their number 1 status will be seen no different than an India or an England.

Posted by   on (February 2, 2013, 1:19 GMT)

How can you possibly call Smith an Average performer? thats just ludicrous

Posted by   on (February 1, 2013, 19:55 GMT)

Here again Harsha is trying to boost an avg performer like he has always done............Harsha is a part of some propeganda campaign that focuses on boosting avg performers & undermining greats...................Naturally media needs new heroes & media people hire guys like Harsha to make heroes out of mediocre people.........................Harsha called Rohit as nxt big thing & he proved to be a total waste, 2). Harsha called Harbhajan a legend in the making when he reached 400 wickets with worst possible credentials compared to peers & we know that now he doesn't deserve a spot in test….Without any doubt SA always had team of same capacity as AUS (With great bowlers like Morket & Stein & great batsmen) of 2000's but Ponting's Aus team's Test & ODI record is far superior to that of Smith's team, ponting didn't lose a single WC match, his win loss ratio in tests was unbelievable?? ….This man Harsha never wrote an article of praise for Ponting but writes one for Smith.

Posted by rick333 on (February 1, 2013, 19:17 GMT)

@ansram: When did it become the topic of Dhoni Vs Smith?!? This article is not an argument but a tribute to one for the finest skipper. Does this anywhere state that Smith is the greatest skipper of all time for you to initiate Dhoni Vs Smith. While I agree with your opinion that Smith is blessed with the most deadly attack in the world where as Dhoni is severly handicapped in that department - this is no place for that discussion.

Posted by PPD123 on (February 1, 2013, 18:55 GMT)

A remarkable achievement. Congrats Greame! When he scored those back 2 back double hundreds in Eng, he had shown us how good he was as a batsman, now having taken them to the pinnacle of test cricket he has shown what a fantastic leader he has turned out to be. Agree, he has been blessed with a group which has some fabulous batsmen and bowlers, but credit should also be given to Smith for building this team brick by brick. @Ansram - you make a very valid point, I am sure we will have another forum to debate Dhoni captaincy and the lack of potency in the Ind bowling attack. For now, lets raise a toast for Smith as he celebrates this fantastic milestone. This landmark is one for the ages...

Posted by CricketMaan on (February 1, 2013, 14:29 GMT)

@ansram - I agree that a leader is as good as his followers. But you still need to give credit where its due. So many players have come and gone, so many things have happened in SA and world circket, yet a bunch of cricketers have followed him on the filed a 100 times in Tests, he has managed to gel new commers with old timers, legends with aspirants and got results out of them. he has managed a 100 times to not let ego flourish, more importantly no groups and kept a nation watch this team with awe. This is a celebration about Smith, im sure Dhoni will have his place in history, but its about Smith. So lets stick to taht.

Posted by ansram on (February 1, 2013, 12:11 GMT)

A captain is as good as his team. Well, a bit more, not much more.

Give Dhoni Steyn, Morkel and Philander and think over what he would have acheived. Smith was not just a good leader, but blessed with the most potent and fearful bowling attack in the world. Given the lack of depth India has in the bowling department, I would say Dhoni has actually acheived more than Smith. Although, one would have to concede that Dhoni has finally run of steam with the decline in India's batting prowess following the retirement of senior legends.

Posted by SherjilIslam on (February 1, 2013, 11:16 GMT)

One of the unsung heroes of SA cricket.Two of his innings i would never forget...even though those are not test innings but never the less very important in the context of those matches. 1. 55 ball 90 in the historical 434 chase at Wanderers. 2. 55 ball 90 in the first T-20 world cup match against WI in 2007.

Respect and salute for a great team man, a captain and a player.From an Indian Fan

Posted by Marktc on (February 1, 2013, 11:15 GMT)

So many anti Smith people...but his record speaks for itself. But as Sir Francis said..average batsman do not average close to 50...nor do poor leaders lead for 100 tests..and close to eclipsing the test win record..he has grown up and is not ashamed to admit his mistakes he made when he was younger...he has a good cricket mind and is a good leader...and has become a nice guy.

Posted by stormy16 on (February 1, 2013, 11:11 GMT)

Yep a remarkable leader, probably the best ever. Also a fantasitic batsman but ugly to watch. He really is an awkward looking batter but man can he bat and most importantly as pointed out - under pressure. If there is a guy you want in your corner when the pressure is on it would be Smith. He has made remarkable innings in the 4th innings of a test and when chasing in one dayers. He is also an awfully tough guy, hardly loses his cool but for some unknown reason most of SA dont like him!! I dont get this at all. May be said something they didnt like but from a pure cricketing point of view I think he will go down as the greatest leader ever.

Posted by im_vishu on (February 1, 2013, 11:05 GMT)

Probably not many(Critics) concentrated on his captaincy skills and that gave him slight breather..100 tests as captain..!!incredible.

As time passes many captains ran out of ideas...Ponting,Dhoni,Steeve Waugh...all had lost some tricks as the years passsed...

Posted by AJ_Tiger86 on (February 1, 2013, 9:12 GMT)

Graeme Smith has won 47 tests as captain. Currently Ponting has the record with 48 wins. When Smith overtakes that record, NOBODY will EVER be able to break that record! Quite an achievement.

Posted by Greatest_Game on (February 1, 2013, 8:45 GMT)

@ jonesy2. For, as you put it, an "average batsman, poor on field captain" to have won two series in succession in Australia tells us all we nee to know how below average his opposition must have been!

Posted by Amit_13 on (February 1, 2013, 8:38 GMT)

All this despite the shadow of being labelled as an incorrect batsman. Hats off!

Posted by VinodGupte on (February 1, 2013, 8:28 GMT)

ah, well, i don't know what it is with SA cricketers but they are not as loved as the players from other countries. kallis, smith, amla, ABD - all are as good as other more celebrated players but don't get as many fans.

smith is the best 4th innings player of the modern era. yes, better than VVSL. look up the stats.

Posted by Test_Cricket_Lover_India on (February 1, 2013, 8:25 GMT)

Also, Graeme Smith has best 4th innings average among all the batsmen Harsha Bhogle has compared him. This confirms Smith's mental toughness and strong character and he leads his team from front.

His average in 4th innings is 55.70 and has scored 2414 runs with 4 centuries.

Michael Clark, Andrew Strauss and Virender Shehwag look lesser batsmen when compared on basis of 4th innings score and records.

Posted by KishorKumar25 on (February 1, 2013, 7:46 GMT)

I hope he wins next world cup for his country. If it happens, it will be a great story. Mean while hail the leader.

Posted by GlobalCricketLover on (February 1, 2013, 7:21 GMT)

In the coming years it might be a while to see people even good enough to play 100 tests as a player, let alone captaining for 100 Tests. Chances are Smith's record wont be broken, ever.

Posted by Armoured_cricket on (February 1, 2013, 7:02 GMT)

@ saltydonut - add to that one Aussie captain and he gains even more admirers!

Posted by Sir_Francis on (February 1, 2013, 6:41 GMT)

Truly great player. Average batsmen don't average 49 as openers. Foolish, ignorant comment. However Super Test wasn't a test. Ask any professional statistician. A Test can only be played between 2 nations.

Posted by Clan_McLachlan on (February 1, 2013, 6:15 GMT)

One of a number of shrewd calls that the SA selectors deserve credit for. They haven't always gotten it right (e.g. Adam Bacher), but when they do the don't get much credit.

Posted by graemecodrington on (February 1, 2013, 6:05 GMT)

Thank you, Harsha, for this wonderful tribute. Thank you, Graeme, for all you have done for cricket!

Posted by highveldhillbilly on (February 1, 2013, 5:59 GMT)

@Jonesy2 - a better leader than Pointing who was an awful captain. Lost the Ashes more often than any other Aus captain, shocker. Only thing that propped Pointing record was Warne, Hayden and McGrath without them he was clueless. Smith had to deal with an average bowling line up from 2003 to 2008. This average batsmen has extracted his pound of flesh from the Aussies in the past couple of years.

Posted by saltydonut on (February 1, 2013, 5:56 GMT)

Presided over the demise of three english captains I beleive. As an Australian I love anyone that can do that.

Posted by cricket_frenzy on (February 1, 2013, 5:23 GMT)

agree with ARad, but making smith captain has worked out well in long term(even if u think they were dry b/w 03-05;but then that is the building phase not only for a young captain, but for a mixed experienced team)

Posted by jonesy2 on (February 1, 2013, 4:54 GMT)

decent leader, average batsman, poor on field captain. congrats on 100 tests as captain but being put in at 22 and not had it taken off him since will do that.

Posted by ARad on (February 1, 2013, 4:04 GMT)

While Smith has turned out to be a good captain, there was no reason for Pollock's sacking after the 2003 WC. Smith did not have great results as a captain for a few years while Pollock's had a very good winning percentage when he was unceremoniously dumped. It was a shame that Pollock was scapegoated for the mistake of the support staff. If SA had persisted with Pollock, they may have performed better between '03 and '05... That said, every cricket fan should applaud Smith's achievements in the past few years and his gritty match winning innings for SA. Congratulations!

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Harsha BhogleClose
Harsha Bhogle Harsha Bhogle is one of the world's leading cricket commentators. Starting off as a chemical engineer and going on to work in advertising before moving into television, he is also a writer, quiz host, television presenter and talk-show host, and a corporate motivational speaker. He was voted Cricinfo readers' "favourite cricket commentator" in a poll in 2008, and one of his proudest possessions is a photograph of a group of spectators in Pakistan holding a banner that said "Harsha Bhogle Fan Club". He has commentated on nearly 100 Tests and more than 400 ODIs.

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