March 6, 2014

Working with Smithy

A one-time South Africa coach talks about his partnership with one of the toughest, most driven captains the country has had

The first time I met Smithy, he was 18 years old and just out of school. I was leading Griqualand West in Kimberley against a development squad of up-and-coming young players.

We both got centuries in that match. At the end we had a barbecue and I tried to sign Smithy for our small province for the following season, but he obviously had bigger and better things on his mind. He started his first-class career at Western Province.

When I joined him at the national team, we shared an instant trust.

I started my job with an ODI series in India that South Africa drew 2-2. Then we went to Australia, which was tough. We lost the Test series and then lost in the tri-series involving Australia and Sri Lanka. That was one of the low points of my career.

I sat in my hotel room in Hobart thinking about how we were going to turn the team around. On the flight back home Smithy and I spent the entire 13 hours swapping ideas, deciding this is the brand of cricket we wanted to play, these are the personnel we want on board, and this is how we are going to take the next couple of years of our relationship together.

Both of us believed in playing attacking cricket. We wanted to pick velocity bowlers, we wanted to create an environment that was structured, organised, disciplined but also allowed players to have fun. We identified players who were genuine game-breakers: players who not only set games up but also won them.

That brainstorming was beneficial. Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel came into the team. It was a youngish unit we were building, a team we thought could take South Africa forward and make it the best team in the world.

That was kind of where we solidified our plans and clarified our roles. I was going to take the pressure off the field, allowing him to concentrate on his preparations, and then I was going to back him up on the decisions he made on the field.

Contrary to popular opinion, our personalities complemented each other. I have always maintained that a captain-coach relationship is like a marriage - you have to completely trust each other. Of course we had our disagreements, but they were always behind closed doors.

If he was not happy with the way we had prepared during training, he would come and let me know. For example, there were times when he noticed we had not done enough slip catching. I would respond by saying that the next time we would stretch the fielding drills.

Then there were times when I heard him say things to people which I would not agree with, and I would make him aware of it privately and he would accept it without holding any grudges. We had give-and-take personalities and that helped us in addressing the team members.

Tough and uncompromising - these were the characteristics that defined Smithy the captain. That was what the media and public saw. But away from the field he is a wonderful gentleman. He is at his happiest sitting around a braai. Off the field he is not the hard, gum-chewing player the public see. Determination was the mask Smithy wore.

When Smithy played with freedom, he would hit the ball in unusual areas and the bowlers would be shattered. James Anderson completely lost the plot when Smithy hit good balls past midwicket

A batsman whose career has spanned more than 100 Tests is bound to have many peaks. There are three major innings I will always remember.

Edgbaston, 2008 was a phenomenal innings under pressure. Monty Panesar was spinning it out of the rough but Smithy's determination never waned. At tea on the final day, South Africa were on a knife edge at 111 for 4, chasing 281 for victory. We were under pressure. Andrew Flintoff had taken a couple of wickets. We needed a partnership. It might have been advantage England otherwise.

I remember when Smithy came into the change room at the break. He put a towel over his head and sat there. I checked with him if everything was all right, if there was anything he needed. He just said: "Coach, get somebody to stay with me and I will make the runs." Of course, Mark Boucher stayed with him, as we know - they had a great partnership and Smithy played exceptionally well to get us the victory. Our first series win in England after 1965.

I will never forget his second-innings century in Perth the same year. He set up the run chase, led from the front and won us the match. The target of 414 had never been conquered. But we thought the WACA pitch was very good and we believed that if we got a good start we could certainly challenge the score. Smithy was instrumental in getting us to a solid start with a century, and that gave the rest of the batsmen confidence.

The third one was the world record 438 in the ODI against Australia in Johannesburg. When people think of that match they immediately think of Herschelle Gibbs. But it was Smithy at the other end who was instrumental in giving South Africa the start they needed in order to win. The range of emotions we went through that day were amazing. It went from total embarrassment to total inspiration within three hours. I remember him not saying too much during the dinner break because he was padding up. During the team meeting I set the various targets we needed to get to at different times in our innings to achieve the chase. Those targets were unreal but it was so uncanny that we hit them all. It was amazing.

I remember another match against England, in the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, which we won handsomely. In that game Smithy played with so much freedom, and when he did that he would hit the ball in unusual areas and the bowlers would be shattered. James Anderson completely lost the plot when Smithy hit good balls past midwicket. When he dominated he would score at such a good rate that the opposition's spirits would be punctured.

But our march towards the title was ended in the next match. The disappointment was tangible. We had gone into the tournament as the No. 1-ranked ODI side. We genuinely believed that we were the best and that we had an opportunity to win, so to lose to Australia in the semi-final was a bitter pill to swallow.

The pressures of being a captain of a country are unique - especially in South Africa, where you have the need to have a team that represents the entire country. It was challenging at times, but Smithy bought into and believed in the concept and handled it exceptionally well.

As a leader he was open-minded and wanted to lead from the front. Take the SCG Test in 2009, when he swallowed pain and went in to bat late with a broken hand. When we were driving to the ground there was no way Smithy was even contemplating batting. He did not have his whites on him when we entered the ground. But as the day went along and we batted better and better, he looked at me as if to ask "Coach, should I bat?" It was still too far away but then it started to come closer and closer. At tea we were 198 for 7, chasing 376. Having won the first two Tests, our solitary aim was to draw the final match. Smithy came and told me: "I am going to bat." I told him if he wanted to bat, I was behind him.

It was such a funny moment as we went around trying to find whites for him. Eventually we got Paul Harris' shirt and jumper. Paul had spilled sweet-and-sour sauce all over his shirt at lunch! Then there were guys who were trying to make a cast for Smithy on his glove. All this was happening behind closed doors because we did not want the TV cameras to catch it and indicate to Australia that Smithy was going to bat.

Then Dale Steyn got out and we still had to survive about ten overs. I will never forget Smithy walking out, pushing the SCG dressing-room doors open - like a cowboy walking into a saloon. It was a fantastic moment. It showed to the team what a tough competitor he was and what he expected from them. He expected no quarter asked, none given.

I read that whenever Smithy got a Test hundred South Africa never lost. That is an amazing stat. And when he got a century he got them at a good pace, which demoralised the opposition. He had the capability of converting a century into a big score, a hallmark of a true champion player.

The biggest token of appreciation I received during my tenure as South Africa's coach came from Smithy. After winning the Man-of-the-Series award on the 2008 England tour, he came to the changing room and gave me his medal. He said it was a token for the hard work we both had put in to win the series. That medal is framed and sits in my study along with the cricket shirt he wore on the day, with a message on it.

He was an unbelievable captain of South Africa. His belief in his own ability and in his team were virtues future leaders can learn from. He was incredibly decisive in the way he went about things. When Smithy wanted to make a decision, he made it. True leaders are decisive. People want a decision and Smithy was prepared to make them.

Graeme Smith leaves a massive legacy. He can be credited for getting South African cricket to where it is now - at the top. After the Hanse Cronje saga and the disastrous World Cups Smithy created a culture, a brand, an air of success around South African cricket.

As told to Nagraj Gollapudi, assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo