South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Cape Town, 3rd day November 11, 2011

Resilient Smith resurrects public image

His raised arms, beaming face and slightly moist eyes showed the feelings of a man who believed he had taken a giant step to winning a match and a small one towards winning the trust of a nation
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As captain for almost nine years, the normally unflappable Graeme Smith has learnt that despair should not cannon into depths of darkness and celebration should not explode like fireworks onto a dark canvas indiscriminately.

Twice, in the last year, his emotion has come out without its usual limits. The first was after South Africa crashed out of the World Cup quarter-final in February, when Smith's face was a shattered mirror of broken dreams. The second time was on Friday at Newlands, when his raised arms, beaming face and slightly moist eyes showed the feelings of a man who believed he had taken a giant step to winning a match and a small one towards winning the trust of a nation.

"It's been a really tough period, the last six months, coming back after the World Cup and the surgery. It's been a process to get here," Smith said after South Africa's famous eight-wicket win. "Today, hopefully, I've won a few people over. It still means a hell of a lot for me to play for South Africa, to be able to bat under pressure like that and to score a hundred."

Smith now holds the record for the most Test runs in successful fourth innings chases, having scored over 1000 runs and four centuries under those circumstances. This time, it was not a case of the team needing to be saved. It was Smith himself who needed to be saved, particularly in the public eye.

This season, he was booed at the Wanderers, Centurion and Durban and despite his form in Test cricket, was facing criticism coming into the match. As always, he wore it on the chin and said he does not want to respond too harshly to those who called for this head.

"To be honest with you, I have nothing to say," Smith said. "There are obviously one or two things that hurt a lot. There were a few things that were very personal and maybe crossed the line over that period of time, but that's the nature of the job I think."

A few weeks before the start of the international season, Smith said that he would try to work as hard as possible on improving his limited-overs form, but also on restoring his own belief, which took a hammering after the World Cup campaign. "I've just had to knuckle down, and it's been a big battle to get the confidence and self-esteem up - that's been a massive challenge," he said.

An unconvincing limited-overs series followed, in which Smith scored one half-century, against Australia, but scratched around at the crease and showed vulnerability against left-handed bowlers. "Cricket's kept its foot on me for the start of this season and I've just kept working hard," he said. "Today was the reward, and hopefully I can build on today. At the end of the day I just wanted to talk with the skills and hopefully perform with the bat. That was my focus throughout the season so far." Though not the most technically attractive, Smith played an innings of composure and class. "Whenever I hit the ball up the ground, that's always a good sign for me," he said. "I felt that my front foot was moving pretty well today, which is a big sign for me, hitting the ball and committing and hitting the ball straight and strong."

South Africa enjoyed their own happy hour with the ball, with wickets coming in double quick time in Australia's second innings, skittling them for an impish total of 47. Whatever Smith said to them in the change-room worked and he said that he did not dish up any words of inspiration, it was something closer to orders. "It's not always about the motivational chat, it's about direction and understanding what we wanted to achieve," he said. "I don't think we ever expected 21 for 9, there were jokes about 60 or 70 but I don't think anyone believed it. It was about giving a bit of direction and the bowlers knowing that they needed to do a job for us."

Smith also commended his team for showing the temperament for the big occasion. "It's so easy when you are 190 behind to go through the motions," he said. "It shows the character of the team that we didn't just back off there, that we came in and bowled well. Obviously there was something in the wicket for us. We showed a bit of resilience and at 21 for 9, it was an incredible sight. I don't think I've seen that on a scorecard since I was a young school boy."

Even if you ask someone who has known him for years, like Jimmy Cook, Smith was obviously the leader of the pack. It is a quality that he has honed for years and a character trait he has carved out for himself in the public eye since he was handed the national captaincy in 2003. It has meant sculpting his personality from brash bully to courageous captain to tender team leader. It seems that he has struck the balance correctly. At the post-match press conference, beyond attending to his regular duties, Smith talked the debutant bowler Vernon Philander through the proceedings at a press conference, showing him when and how to talk into the microphone.

It's that kind of leadership that Smith shows that is impossible to ignore him as the rightful front man of the South African team. He commands respect and today he showed why he deserved it.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Marktc on November 14, 2011, 10:02 GMT

    Smith is both a good captain and a wonderful batsman. As a captain he makes mistakes, as do ALL captains. But he has the respect and support of his team and he knows how to people manage. When he became captain, he had some things to say etc that made him enemies. These are the people who refuse to see how brilliant he he really is. He is a strong character and the perfect captain for SA.

  • sammykent on November 13, 2011, 4:30 GMT

    Smith is going to go down in history as one of the all time greats.

  • TheMehssiah on November 12, 2011, 13:10 GMT

    I've always had the greatest of respect for Smith, and the only surprising thing in this article for me was that Smith, and anyone else, thought redemption was necessary. As an England fan, I wouldn't swap Strauss for anyone else, but I'd swap him for Smith.

  • demon_bowler on November 12, 2011, 12:11 GMT

    Never been able to warm to Smith as a person, but he has my total respect as a test batsman, one of the modern greats without a doubt. His technical faults are more than outweighed by his strength of character.

  • katilya28 on November 12, 2011, 11:32 GMT

    smith turnaround can be described in one word-"Gary Kirstien"

  • shivendash on November 12, 2011, 11:31 GMT

    Kallis brings bad omen to the team. SA will not win anything as long as he is there

  • on November 12, 2011, 10:19 GMT

    The people in SA cricket who know anything about the game (selectors and coaches etc) never seriously considered dropping Smith from the Test Side. One Day side maybe, but not the Test Side. You need the hard, gritty, tough mental strength that Graeme brings to the game. Currently Smith, Kallis and perhaps Prince have that do or die attitude. Amla, AB and when JP Duminy gets back into the side, are all fantastic stroke makers, wonderful to watch, but not guys you would pick to bat for your life. Besides, looking at Smiths stats, 7600 runs at an average of 50.30 with 23 Test Hundreds, at the age of 30, which is prime for Test batsmen, it would have been foolish to discard him.

  • I-have-Steyns-autograph on November 12, 2011, 9:08 GMT

    i previously mentioned smith should not have been in the ODI's, but he remains the heartbeat of our test side. a very courageous and humble leader, his knock with the broken hand in sydney confirmed his greatness. i almost shed a tear when it was in vain.

    the 96 and 47 innings were bizarre, but SA bowled and batted better over the match and deserved the win.

  • on November 12, 2011, 6:24 GMT

    smith is a legend....amazing innings...that was to shut all his critics..

  • on November 12, 2011, 6:20 GMT

    Smith's turn around is one of a player that does it when the heaviest pressure is on him. I firmly feel that Smith has the best years of his career ahead of him. He has a remarkable temperament and even though he had a number of hard knocks, he just plods forward. Give it time, and he could go down as the best captain SA ever produced.

  • Marktc on November 14, 2011, 10:02 GMT

    Smith is both a good captain and a wonderful batsman. As a captain he makes mistakes, as do ALL captains. But he has the respect and support of his team and he knows how to people manage. When he became captain, he had some things to say etc that made him enemies. These are the people who refuse to see how brilliant he he really is. He is a strong character and the perfect captain for SA.

  • sammykent on November 13, 2011, 4:30 GMT

    Smith is going to go down in history as one of the all time greats.

  • TheMehssiah on November 12, 2011, 13:10 GMT

    I've always had the greatest of respect for Smith, and the only surprising thing in this article for me was that Smith, and anyone else, thought redemption was necessary. As an England fan, I wouldn't swap Strauss for anyone else, but I'd swap him for Smith.

  • demon_bowler on November 12, 2011, 12:11 GMT

    Never been able to warm to Smith as a person, but he has my total respect as a test batsman, one of the modern greats without a doubt. His technical faults are more than outweighed by his strength of character.

  • katilya28 on November 12, 2011, 11:32 GMT

    smith turnaround can be described in one word-"Gary Kirstien"

  • shivendash on November 12, 2011, 11:31 GMT

    Kallis brings bad omen to the team. SA will not win anything as long as he is there

  • on November 12, 2011, 10:19 GMT

    The people in SA cricket who know anything about the game (selectors and coaches etc) never seriously considered dropping Smith from the Test Side. One Day side maybe, but not the Test Side. You need the hard, gritty, tough mental strength that Graeme brings to the game. Currently Smith, Kallis and perhaps Prince have that do or die attitude. Amla, AB and when JP Duminy gets back into the side, are all fantastic stroke makers, wonderful to watch, but not guys you would pick to bat for your life. Besides, looking at Smiths stats, 7600 runs at an average of 50.30 with 23 Test Hundreds, at the age of 30, which is prime for Test batsmen, it would have been foolish to discard him.

  • I-have-Steyns-autograph on November 12, 2011, 9:08 GMT

    i previously mentioned smith should not have been in the ODI's, but he remains the heartbeat of our test side. a very courageous and humble leader, his knock with the broken hand in sydney confirmed his greatness. i almost shed a tear when it was in vain.

    the 96 and 47 innings were bizarre, but SA bowled and batted better over the match and deserved the win.

  • on November 12, 2011, 6:24 GMT

    smith is a legend....amazing innings...that was to shut all his critics..

  • on November 12, 2011, 6:20 GMT

    Smith's turn around is one of a player that does it when the heaviest pressure is on him. I firmly feel that Smith has the best years of his career ahead of him. He has a remarkable temperament and even though he had a number of hard knocks, he just plods forward. Give it time, and he could go down as the best captain SA ever produced.

  • ferrisinafrica on November 12, 2011, 5:48 GMT

    His raised arms, beaming face and slightly moist eyes showed the feelings of a man who believed he had taken a giant step to winning a match and a small one towards winning the trust of a nation????????????? What Crap... How many more times must Smitho step up to the plate ina fourth innings for people to realise he is without doubt the best LEADER we have had since re-admission ... and if journo's keep on wrting him down the not so educated cricket publis will follow , since he made his debut that day at newlands against Oz Ive never had any doubts that he is destined for GREATNESS!!!!!

  • sachin_vvsfan on November 12, 2011, 5:31 GMT

    He captained for 8 years and definitely deserved to get atleast one Cup in world series(T20/CL ODI/WC).But he can't be faulted for that coz thats the curse on SA team.

  • kingcobra85 on November 12, 2011, 5:27 GMT

    pitch the ball up on drivable length and he will fall...his technique is faulty for driving. The Australian bowlers bowled badly to him bowling to his strengths rather than asking him to drive. Dnt remember even one four through the covers from a full pitched delivery

  • on November 12, 2011, 4:49 GMT

    i've never liked smith but have developed a grudging respect for him..to me he is on par with ganguly as a leader better test bat and lesser ODI bat but overall equally significant to SA as SG was for IND

  • on November 12, 2011, 4:21 GMT

    I think Smithy has come of age with this knock. He has been through the wringer, and now I think he is going to hit his straps. I want to mention Mkhaya here, because this win reminds me of our historic Perth win a few years back. End of the game there were only a handful of us saffas at the ground, and about 3 ozzies with the stomach to stay for the ceremony. Both teams ignored our calls for autographs etc, to the point of, like, what the hell? Mkhaya was already undressed, he saw us from the changerooms, got dressed again and came down to talk to us, ozzies and saffas alike. So natural, intelligent and just straight out cool! I do remember Mkhaya for his performance on the field, but that day...what can I say, the man is an out and out champion!

  • joseyesu on November 12, 2011, 4:04 GMT

    Now johnson is entering into Irfan pathan's role. If he didnot perform surely...

  • Lazybones_2011 on November 12, 2011, 3:51 GMT

    I hope Ricky does something similar in next game that would make a great series

  • on November 12, 2011, 1:56 GMT

    After what he did at Edgbaston and Perth in particular I would have put money on Graeme Smith scring a century to lead South Africa home. In fact I did. The man never gives up, and I'm ashamed of my former compatriots for booing him

  • rahulcricket007 on November 12, 2011, 1:26 GMT

    HE WAS NEVER OUT OF FORM AGAINST INDIA SERIES EARLIER . HE GETS OUT BECAUSE EVERYTIME ZAHEER BOWLS TO HIM.

  • on November 11, 2011, 23:56 GMT

    i like the way he fights. still i remember how he batted against aussies with one hand.. respect!

  • DamieninFrance on November 11, 2011, 22:36 GMT

    Seriously, how can anyone not respect the man? As a captain of the Saffers, he's a man who leads from the front. He's as tough as nails, and rarely gives the opposition any ammunition before the battle. He may not be the most elegant strokemaker, nor the fastest accumulator of runs, but he holds the team together as a unit. Any critics using the 'chokers' tag as an argument should remember that such a tag was in place before his captaincy. Further, I'd argue the 438 game, and SA's first-ever test series victory in Aus under his captaincy as evidence that he was the one who started to shed that image. I hope he stays in charge of the Proteas for a long time yet. SA cricketers are such great competition with him at the helm!

  • on November 11, 2011, 22:29 GMT

    Never doubted him as a captain, but his ODI form hadn't been pretty for the last 2-3 years. Certainly not one befitting an opening batsman for a team like SA. People were right to criticise him because you simply have to perform if you're opening for SA. I hope this spells the return of Graeme Smith the batsman. I want him to get his swagger back. Means good things for the Proteas.

  • ElPhenomeno on November 11, 2011, 21:18 GMT

    Aussasinator, I dont think dhoni belongs in that list. I am south african whose 2nd favourite team is india, dhoni is a good captain but not great. His truest test is yet to come when men like rahul, SRT and laxman are no longer there is bail him out.

  • BokFan on November 11, 2011, 20:55 GMT

    Ah, the enigma of Graeme Smith: great batsman, terrible captain.

    Look, the guy can give it with the best of them. Every team wants a guy like that in their side. A guy who never says die.

    And as a batsman, Smith has turned that never-say-die attitude into a great asset. Once he gets going, there is no stopping him. With age, though, it appears that opponents have more success preventing him from getting going. But the guy is one of the best batsman SA produced in a generation. Unfortunately we all age.

    As a captain, though, Biff is below par. Part of it is just the complexity of the job - and no job is harder than that of an international cricket captain: strategy, man management and personal form contribute to make a near-impossible mission. Biff is just not up to the task: great personal form (for most of his career) does NOT make a great captain. Strategy is NOT his strength. Man management is OK when the troops need a dressing down - when encouragement is called for...

  • bennybar on November 11, 2011, 20:37 GMT

    Graeme Smith, no doubt, is a man of Integrity. Leaders ought to have leadership qualities that's why they are leaders. However each leader has one quality that stands out. For Graeme it is "Integrity". You can't dislike him because he does not dislike ANYONE - even his enemies or tormentors. That is the kind of person he is. I liked this article. Great job Firdose

  • hassan13 on November 11, 2011, 19:43 GMT

    Smith was always a great player! All those people Booing should hold their head in shame. The man lead from the front and with Amla ensured a great test victory.

  • KingOwl on November 11, 2011, 19:33 GMT

    As a SL supporter, I must say that I have always admired Greame Smith, not in stops and starts like some do, but always. Great man to lead.

  • Shoobhit on November 11, 2011, 19:14 GMT

    Firdose has put it all the rightly....i knew proteas, while damning smith, have been little oblivious of what he has done for them. M truly happy for the brave leader who never shirked back when the time came. Just remember many of those moments when he made every SAfrica fan esctatic....

  • on November 11, 2011, 19:10 GMT

    He should have another hit at the world cup... He might do it still...

  • Aussasinator on November 11, 2011, 17:23 GMT

    Smith is a man of strength and character. He's a born leader of men, in the ranks of the very best like Brearley, Mark Taylor, Dhoni and Ranatunga.

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  • Aussasinator on November 11, 2011, 17:23 GMT

    Smith is a man of strength and character. He's a born leader of men, in the ranks of the very best like Brearley, Mark Taylor, Dhoni and Ranatunga.

  • on November 11, 2011, 19:10 GMT

    He should have another hit at the world cup... He might do it still...

  • Shoobhit on November 11, 2011, 19:14 GMT

    Firdose has put it all the rightly....i knew proteas, while damning smith, have been little oblivious of what he has done for them. M truly happy for the brave leader who never shirked back when the time came. Just remember many of those moments when he made every SAfrica fan esctatic....

  • KingOwl on November 11, 2011, 19:33 GMT

    As a SL supporter, I must say that I have always admired Greame Smith, not in stops and starts like some do, but always. Great man to lead.

  • hassan13 on November 11, 2011, 19:43 GMT

    Smith was always a great player! All those people Booing should hold their head in shame. The man lead from the front and with Amla ensured a great test victory.

  • bennybar on November 11, 2011, 20:37 GMT

    Graeme Smith, no doubt, is a man of Integrity. Leaders ought to have leadership qualities that's why they are leaders. However each leader has one quality that stands out. For Graeme it is "Integrity". You can't dislike him because he does not dislike ANYONE - even his enemies or tormentors. That is the kind of person he is. I liked this article. Great job Firdose

  • BokFan on November 11, 2011, 20:55 GMT

    Ah, the enigma of Graeme Smith: great batsman, terrible captain.

    Look, the guy can give it with the best of them. Every team wants a guy like that in their side. A guy who never says die.

    And as a batsman, Smith has turned that never-say-die attitude into a great asset. Once he gets going, there is no stopping him. With age, though, it appears that opponents have more success preventing him from getting going. But the guy is one of the best batsman SA produced in a generation. Unfortunately we all age.

    As a captain, though, Biff is below par. Part of it is just the complexity of the job - and no job is harder than that of an international cricket captain: strategy, man management and personal form contribute to make a near-impossible mission. Biff is just not up to the task: great personal form (for most of his career) does NOT make a great captain. Strategy is NOT his strength. Man management is OK when the troops need a dressing down - when encouragement is called for...

  • ElPhenomeno on November 11, 2011, 21:18 GMT

    Aussasinator, I dont think dhoni belongs in that list. I am south african whose 2nd favourite team is india, dhoni is a good captain but not great. His truest test is yet to come when men like rahul, SRT and laxman are no longer there is bail him out.

  • on November 11, 2011, 22:29 GMT

    Never doubted him as a captain, but his ODI form hadn't been pretty for the last 2-3 years. Certainly not one befitting an opening batsman for a team like SA. People were right to criticise him because you simply have to perform if you're opening for SA. I hope this spells the return of Graeme Smith the batsman. I want him to get his swagger back. Means good things for the Proteas.

  • DamieninFrance on November 11, 2011, 22:36 GMT

    Seriously, how can anyone not respect the man? As a captain of the Saffers, he's a man who leads from the front. He's as tough as nails, and rarely gives the opposition any ammunition before the battle. He may not be the most elegant strokemaker, nor the fastest accumulator of runs, but he holds the team together as a unit. Any critics using the 'chokers' tag as an argument should remember that such a tag was in place before his captaincy. Further, I'd argue the 438 game, and SA's first-ever test series victory in Aus under his captaincy as evidence that he was the one who started to shed that image. I hope he stays in charge of the Proteas for a long time yet. SA cricketers are such great competition with him at the helm!