March 13, 2014

The remarkable Mr Smith

Not many will forget this unwavering leader who set the agenda during South Africa's most challenging era

Graeme Smith spoke for a diverse nation that was looking to move on © AFP

South African cricket has taken three bad hits. First Jacques Kallis hung up those huge boots, then Graeme Smith. Two days after Smith's announcement, Australia completed a resounding series win. Over three Test matches, the South Africans were outplayed at home - a rare occurrence indeed.

But why? The shock of Mitchell Johnson's impact cost Smith's team the first Test in Centurion. Smith himself fell to a short ball and both Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis were startled by wicked deliveries first up. Only AB de Villiers appeared ready. Comparisons with the recent Ashes series are worthwhile. England were simply not prepared for the assault at the Gabba. Some batsmen fended off, others were caught in the deep attempting a poorly thought out response. It was too much for Jonathan Trott and, if we are honest, for many of the others too.

Neither was there respite at the other end. Ryan Harris fed from the insecurity, Peter Siddle too. The Australians caught pretty much everything that came their way, a skill that deserted both England and South Africa. For England, the bounce back needed to be immediate in Adelaide but there was nothing left. The team and management were imploding.

The stronger South Africans found something from within and the team rose like a phoenix to level the series in Port Elizabeth. Little did we know then that this was to be Smith's last great stand. Urging Dale Steyn to a memorable performance, the South African captain showed the intensity of leadership that has been his hallmark. After that, the ambition in him was drained and the will to keep pushing harder, higher, further had gone forever.

South Africa will miss this remarkable man. It took him four years to learn about the captaincy at a time when he was still trying to learn about himself. Time was short, new principles and structures had been laid down but few understood the process to achieve them. In a rapidly changing land, the confusion was apparent as various players, captains and administrators made a mess of the responsibilities thrown at them. A 22-year-old had been given the job of unravelling it all and unravel it he did. So big was the picture that aspects of his captaincy never quite developed, among them an intricate tactical appreciation. But his form soared and the team found a formula to win the big points, even away from home. People forgot about quotas, Cronje, corruption and World Cup stupidity, and began to applaud players who were heading for the top.

Smith did not dwell on the past but rather spoke of unity as if it were a byword for the composition of a national team

The man who spoke for them did not dwell on the past - he was too young to know much about it - but rather spoke of unity as if it were a byword for the composition of a national team. As far as Smith was concerned you were good enough or you were not good enough; you were strong enough or you were not strong enough. Keep it simple stupid, he seemed to say to all those who thought they could run the new South African cricket from their glass houses. What has gone has gone, we are moving on, urged Smith, let it go. Perhaps his inspiration, as it has been with so many, was Nelson Mandela. The parallels are there.

The retirement of Kallis, though damaging, is less profound. Sure, runs will be harder to come by, slip catches will be missed, and the capturing of key wickets, at times when nobody else can conjure them up, will turn into partnerships that need to be broken in different ways. But Kallis was a cricketer. Cricketers come and go. Even the very great ones.

Smith has been a cricketer all right, but more than that he has been an unwavering leader during the most challenging era South African cricket has known. His interpretation of responsibility and a natural eye for the path ahead has allowed him to speak for a diverse nation that is emerging from the winter of its days. Smith is among the enlightened few who have been able to breathe the air of spring.

The defeat came because the South African players were not ready for cricket of such ferocity and because, consciously or subconsciously, the captain was contemplating his retirement. The players had a month of provincial T20 to prepare for Johnson. In retrospect, they had no chance.

Probably, they had watched England being bullied and figured there was more to their own play than to be such a pushover. A suspicion lingered that the coach, Russell Domingo, and the captain were not as one. There are not many Gary Kirstens out there, sadly, or England would snap one up too. Kirsten would have been at Smith's side - the trust between them was absolute - helping to clear his head one way or the other before guiding it back to the issue at hand.

It is no secret that Smith missed a close relationship. Mark Boucher, Kirsten, Kallis - all gone. Being left out of the one-day side hurt more than the executioners know. Perhaps he should not have relinquished the captaincy and given them the chance. Communication is as important for those above the line as for those beneath it. Emotional support came exclusively from home, no longer from dressing room or boardroom. The accident with the boiling water that spilt on his 18-month-old daughter left an emotional trail around the family. Sitting up with her through the first night of the Port Elizabeth Test allowed him hours of reflection at a time of extreme tension, and with the senses of both himself and those around him heightened to an unimaginable level. Almost certainly, it was then that his mind was made up.

For all this, Australia played magnificently. Michael Clarke is the smartest captain around and Darren Lehmann's stock rises by the month. Clarke's determination with the bat against Morne Morkel at Newlands was Smith-esqe and set yet another benchmark for the team. It is tempting to say that the Australians will soon recover the aura they had for the decade that finished with the retirements of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath but question marks remain.

How will the splendid Ryan Harris recover from surgery and how long will the rest of his aching body last? Can Peter Siddle recover his old zip on a diet of bananas? Are the talented young fast bowlers who lie in wait physically strong enough? Is Nathan Lyon too limited for Clarke's requirement? Is Alex Doolan a No. 3 for all time and if not, who is? For how long can Chris Rogers fill the breach? And, of course, there is the Shane Watson storyline.

These questions will niggle away at Smith as much as at any Australian. His team was as good as Clarke's but he has only retirement to show for it. Just 33 years of age and trim of body and mind, Smith may well stand at slip for Surrey next month and for the first time in a life of looking ahead, begin to look back. Yes, Newlands was the right place to say goodbye but was the aftermath of a humbling defeat by Australia the right time?

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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