Resilient Smith resurrects public image
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