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One first-class innings in six months, the heat of the Middle East, his team 1-0 down in the series, probing left-arm quicks and spinners. It would have been enough to overwhelm many players, but Graeme Smith rose magnificently to the challenge
Firdose Moonda in Dubai
October 24, 2013
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Series/Tournaments: South Africa tour of United Arab Emirates
Graeme Smith took three purposeful strides out of his crease, steered his bat with a heavy bottom-hand, met the delivery with the lower-third of it, cleared midwicket and saw the opportunity to take two runs. As he turned for the second, he was facing his team-mates. They rose to their feet, he raised his arms. Then, he took his helmet to reveal that expression - square-jawed scowl.
If captured in isolation, it could be mistaken for pain or exhaustion. When understood in its context, it is the face of someone who values the rewards their own determination can bring. Smith's fifth double-hundred, which included the 9000th run of his decade-long Test career, should be decisive in ensuring South Africa win the Test match, share the series and maintain their seven-year unbeaten streak on the road. All of that was written on his face when he brought up the landmark.
Smith's name is not often mentioned when all-time greats are discussed but this innings was another illustration of why it should be. It was a test of skill and stamina, starting with an examination by the type of bowlers Smith least prefers facing - left-arm quicks - and culminating with a counterpunch to the elements of high heat and humidity which would have melted a less resilient man.
Mohammed Irfan threatened to dismantle Smith first, smacking him on the pads as he moved across to try and hit through the leg side and then slicing him in half with a delivery that rose off a good length. Smith was uncomfortable, maybe even a little rattled, but immovable.
Then he had Saeed Ajmal, who drew him forward and turned the ball away from him to beat the outside edge multiple times, to contend with. Ajmal kept teasing, Smith kept swatting him away and then, drove him down the ground. That shot, played before tea on the first afternoon, was the stroke that indicated Smith had his eye in.
He has previously revealed he knows he is in a good batting mindset when he is able to drive straight. By the end of play on the opening day, Smith had brought up his half-century with two boundaries unfurled down the ground. By stumps on the second day, 30% of his runs had come in the V which is a considerable portion for him. As way of a basic comparison, in his previous hundred, the 122 at Adelaide, just 9% of the runs were in that area.
His runs down the ground in this innings included the shot he brought up his century with, cleanly and confidently struck off Ajmal. It also contained the hoist over mid-on, to bring up 150. Both those demonstrated how well Smith had settled in against the spinner and how assured he was in his own ability to step out and meet them.
|When he walked off the field, ankle intact despite concerns and the run bank refilled after a lengthy absence from the game, Smith could work tall having ticked off another feat|
For the rest, there was an expected amount of hacking. Smith's un-pretty technique is cricket's version of a butcher slicing with the grain instead of against it. Meat fibres are flayed awkwardly; chewing, swallowing and even digesting is a test for the system rather than an experience of culinary delight, but for the hungry it does the job as well as a perfectly carved and seared piece of meat would.
And Smith was starved. He spent six months out of the game recovering from ankle surgery and on a lifestyle program that saw him lose 12 kilograms. He batted once in a competitive situation before arriving in the UAE and spent just 15 balls at the crease in the warm-up match. He was not "out of form," as Mohammad Akram said because he did not have enough game time for that assessment to be anything but an exaggeration.
What he was, was out of practice. That was why he had to "scratch hard and stay at the crease," which Akram credited him for. In his own words, he had to "find a way," because "I don't think I have ever been the most talented batter."
His way has always involved muscling the ball through the leg side in a laboured fashion and he relied on that as much as ever, even after he crossed the 200 mark. Today. it also involved "keeping your focus," despite an increasingly weary bowlers who seemed to run out of attacking ideas and wearing a blow from Irfan which struck him on the helmet and "gave me a buzzing head for the rest day."
That was the closest he came to being felled. For the rest of his time at the crease, Smith barely took his eyes off the ball and did not offer any genuine chances, not against a fiery Irfan or against the toiling spinners who induced leading edges towards the end of the day. He took no risks.
For that there was AB de Villiers. He survived a chance off the first ball he faced, would have been out lbw for 25 had Pakistan had reviews in hand, was given out on 96 before reviewing himself and benefiting from too much turn from Ajmal and survived a run-out chance, but in-between he was agile and aggressive to complement Smith's heavy-handed style of play.
De Villiers provided the frills - the footwork, the reverse-sweep, the aerial drives and innovative pulls. He also provided the nerves. The cramping up as he reached his century, the singles that someone else would have been happy to turn down and in so doing, he was the mental energy supply Smith needed to keep going.
Physically, Smith did not seem to be under as much strain as de Villiers and admitted he was took quiet schadenfreude in seeing the "young whipper-snapper at the other end cramping," while he was untroubled by dehydration. He was, as is only natural, tired by the end of what he thought was the "hottest day of the tour," but he was hugely satisfied that he had come through without any discomfort.
When he walked off the field, ankle intact despite concerns and the run bank refilled after a lengthy absence from the game, Smith could work tall having ticked off another feat. "Scoring a double-hundred in sub-continent-like conditions was good for me," he said.
Smith already has a list of achievements that include becoming the 12th player to go past 9,000 Test runs, and being behind only Sunil Gavaskar for the most runs as an opener. The number of runs he has scored as a captain - over 90% - has resulted in much comparison with Allan Border. Smith has already captained more times than Border and said if the legacy he leaves "is even a quarter," of what Border's was with Australia, he will be satisfied.
But the record that may be most relevant for him and his team-mates tonight is that Smith's innings has done a huge amount to make match safe. Every time Smith has scored a century, on 26 previous occasions, South Africa have not lost the Test. That's leadership in its most explicit and unique form. As his wife Morgan tweeted: "There's only one Graeme Smith."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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