March 5, 2014

'He scored runs even when he wasn't playing well'

Jimmy Cook, who coached a young Graeme Smith, talks about the extreme focus, technique, and ability to chatter about the game non-stop that marked his protege

Graeme Smith: Never tired of talking about cricket © Getty Images

Jimmy Cook is a former South African opener who spent almost his entire career out of international cricket because of apartheid. He now coaches kids in Johannesburg. After net sessions, he sits around with the kids and often tells them of a 12-year-old boy. "A naughty little bugger."

When Cook first saw this kid, he was bowling in one of his cricket clinics. One of the many kids in Cook's nets. Another kid asked him something as he waited his turn to bowl. And our boy said, "Leave me alone. I am bowling." The other kid gave him a look you would give a weirdo. Cook himself thought he had an "odd boy" on his hands. "He must be a strange kid."

Then our boy went to bat. He insisted Cook stand next to him. Every time he hit the ball, he would look to the coach, never mind the others waiting. He would ask after every ball, "Everything okay? All fine?" At the end of the net, he would sit down with the coach and go, "What did you think? How did it go? How did I do?" And just speak cricket.

"Jeez, the practice finishes, and he's high-fiving everybody," Cook said, "and playing and running around like a normal kid. But while he was playing, there was no one else [that mattered] but what he was busy doing. Totally, totally focused. To this day, I have never seen a kid like him. Ever.

That, and the questions the young Graeme Smith used to ask are the things Cook remembers the most about his protégé. "'What was it like opening the batting? What should I do here? How should I play here?' God, he never stopped."

"Jeez, the practice finishes, and he's high-fiving everybody, and playing and running around like a normal kid. But while he was playing, there was no one else that mattered"
Jimmy Cook on Smith

Cook didn't do private lessons, but this youngster's ways had a certain persuasive power. Cook's son Stephen was a year younger. And there was another boy, called Matthew Harris, who played 50 first-class games as a wicketkeeper-batsman. Cook used to pick the three up from King Edward School, reach the Wanderers indoor nets at around 3pm, and they bat for hours. Two of the kids would take turns to throw balls to each other, and Cook would use the bowling machine for the third. They would rotate and rotate and talk cricket until the two other dads would come to fetch them at 7pm.

And Smith would say, "No, no, dad. Just one more bat. Just one more net."

Cook says watching young Stephen and Graeme bat together, and talking cricket to them, were some of the best years of his life. "He's been a very special guy in my life."

Except that Smith wasn't always pleasant to watch as a batsman. You ask Cook what stood out about Smith's batting when he was that young, and he laughs, "Apart from all the flaws he had?

"He had a funny way, Graeme. He scored runs even when he wasn't playing well. Stephen was probably slightly more technically good. Graeme was more like a strong boy who hit the ball hard. Many a Saturday, I used to watch and think, 'Eh, Graeme hasn't played really well today.' Mind you, he's got 15 not out, so he's doing all right. Half an hour later you think, 'It's not been his day today.' Mind you, he's got 35. And the number of times you would do that on a Saturday… 'You know what, he didn't play that well, but mind you, he did get 85 so that's not bad.' He always had a knack of making runs."

That was something that needed to be nurtured. Smith never had a cover drive back then. His bottom-handed grip, almost locking his hands when he looked to play to off, made him a strong leg-side player, but he was always going to have problems when bowlers took the ball away from him from outside off.

"We were probably never going to get the grip 100% right, so he wouldn't be a big driver of the ball," Cook says. "But we worked on other things. I could see he was strong there [pointing to the leg side]. And mentally, I've never seen a kid so strong here [pointing at his head]. He knew what he was doing. And very quickly we came up with a plan for him. And we said to him, if we play according to this plan, we'll be okay."

So how did they overcome the lack of off-side shots? "Don't play them," Cook says. "Just don't play that ball. If you bowl him a half-volley outside off stump, when he's got 70, he'll hit you through cover. Early on, he tries not to. Yes he's developed that side of his game to a certain degree, but early on in his career, we tried to leave it alone. He was very strong on his legs, and I told him, 'They'll try to bowl wider because they don't want to bowl on your pads. So we'll work on your cut.' And the ball slightly wide of off stump, he can hit it straight."

So without a cover drive, looking ungainly, this boy kept racking up the runs. When Smith was 16, Cook asked Lions to sign him up. They passed. Next year Smith was in the South Africa Under-19 side. Almost every province wanted him by then. Cook kept Smith in Johannesburg but not for long. Physically he would move to Cape Town; emotionally and spiritually he would become South Africa's.

Within a year of Smith's becoming an international, South Africa would go through a captaincy crisis. The 2003 World Cup disaster consumed Shaun Pollock, who had stepped in after the Hansie Cronje fiasco. Jacques Kallis was too engrossed in his own game, and Mark Boucher would have been low after blocking the ball that saw South Africa go out of the World Cup. It was around this time that Cook went on a TV discussion show as a pundit, to discuss prospective captains. Cook obviously knew the big news - Smith's father had told him - but he was not allowed to disclose it to anybody.

The anchor brought up the rumour about the 22-year-old Smith. Cook had to control his excitement, and blabbered something about how he could be good but was young and so on. Cook had himself been surprised the captaincy had come so early. If he had any doubts they were soon taken away.

"I'll never forget before they went to England [in 2003]," Cook says. "The batsmen were doing some shuttles. The bowlers had finished their training and were sitting and having a cold drink. He stopped doing shuttles and said, 'Everybody here.' And I was there helping out with the camp. 'You bowlers, don't you ever go and have a cold drink until we are done with practice. You come here, stand here and you cheer the guys on, and help the guys with the fitness that we do. Don't you ever do that again.'

"And there's Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald and all standing there. And he put his point across. And I thought, 'You know what, we've made the right choice here. We've made the absolute perfect choice. If he's going to be that strong from the outset with the senior players, we have got a winner here.' And he always was one.

"And he wanted to captain. You sometimes get guys - Kallis doesn't want to captain. I almost got the impression that Sachin [Tendulkar] didn't want to captain. I always got the impression, 'Genius, let me play. I'll give you ideas from time to time. I can see what's going on. But I don't want to be the guy who has to do interviews and spin the coin.' Whereas Graeme thrived on it. He loved that part."

Eleven years later, having retired England captains, having ruined Ricky Ponting's farewell, having played some of the truly great crisis innings of our times (never mind broken hands and other injuries sustained during or before those innings), having spent most of his adult life as a Test captain, having gone five years without a series defeat, the Iron Man has given in to a combination of ordinary form, the demands of a young family, and the off-field headaches that South Africa's captaincy brings.

In a corner of a cricket field, though, after the long net sessions, Jimmy Cook probably still regales his new kids with the stories of the 12-year-old bugger who couldn't be bothered about anything else other than what he was doing.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo