South Africa news March 4, 2014

'He was a youngster but he was a big man'

Three of Graeme Smith's former team-mates, Mark Boucher, Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis, remember a brash youngster growing into a statesmanlike captain and scoring a mountain of runs with a rough technqiue

#politeenquiries: Will Graeme Smith play for Ireland?

By the time he was 21, Graeme Smith had already done a lot of growing up. He had moved away from the city of his youth and his parent's home in Johannesburg and set himself up 1,400 kilometres away in Cape Town. He had a job as a professional cricketer at Western Province and he was making progress.

After a couple of seasons in the domestic set-up, he was earmarked for higher honours. A month after reaching the adulthood, he was picked to make his international debut. Against Australia. At Newlands.

Glenn McGrath was the first man to dismiss Smith at that level and the Australian seamer was not going to let him forget it. McGrath spent the rest of that series sledging Smith, who took it bravely but was slowly losing patience. He wanted to respond but was not quite sure how. So he asked some of the senior players, including mischief-maker Mark Boucher for some help.

"A couple of us mentioned something he could say back but we did it as a joke," Boucher said. "Graeme went out there and said it. He just came back to us and said he didn't think it went too well."

In a candid interview with the now-defunct South African Sports Illustrated magazine two months later Smith revealed he asked McGrath if he was "constantly on his period," in retaliation. It was exactly the kind of thing that would irritate McGrath and Boucher and co. knew it. They did not know Smith could be ballsy enough to repeat those words. "That was Graeme, he had the character to front up. He walked the walk," Boucher said.

Exactly a year, a month and a double hundred later, Smith was asked to walk a much thornier path. In the aftermath of the 2003 World Cup failure, South Africa wanted to work from a clean slate. "Graeme had a mature cricket brain and a real presence," Shaun Pollock, his predecessor said. "He was a youngster but he was a big man."

He also had a sharp tongue that he was not afraid to use. "People saw him as quite brash because he was a 22-year-old and making big statements and people would ask where the performance was to back that up," Pollock said. Smith had an answer for that too: twin double hundreds against England. From "whatshisname", as Nasser Hussain called him in a press conference, to having his name become headline, Smith had arrived.

Then he had to continue. Captaining in South Africa involved dealing with much more than just sport. A country fractured by segregation was only in its first decade of healing when Smith took over. Democracy was younger than him and a lot had to change to make the game inclusive. He had to understand that and he had to become part of the solution. "We are unique in this country. There are extra challenges that you have to deal with that other countries don't have to," Pollock said.

But there is also the small matter of winning. As a fiercely competitive nation, South Africa never accepted anything but victory and even when Smith racked some up, his failure to win a World Cup, for example, always haunted him and the team. "He is another South African sportsman who just didn't get the credit that he deserves," Jacques Kallis said. "A lot of our sportsmen are like that - rugby players, golfers. Maybe it is a South African thing that we like to keep our guys down on the ground or we like criticising."

Smith dealt with the public dislike and snide remarks for much of his career, which only started to soften when he won in England in 2008 and then won in Australia. That was where he really won hearts. By the time the team went there, they were wisened by memories of being beaten by Australia at home and away. He decided the best way to fight them was not to fight at all. At least, not publicly. "Graeme and Mickey said let's not try and upset the apple cart, let's go there humbly and not get involved in too much media stuff," Boucher said. It worked.

It was quite emotional for guys in the dressing-room. They realised what had happened on that tour. The Australian crowd had come to fall in love with a captain they actually hated. I've never seen it before
Mark Boucher remembers the reception Graeme Smith received in Sydney

South Africa concentrated on themselves and soon led the series 2-0. They stunned an Australian side that had not been beaten in their own backyard for 15 years and so they had earned respect.

Smith earned them a little more when he showed he too could adopt an Australian-style ruthlessness. Even though the series was won he walked out to bat with a broken hand to try and save the final Test. "South Africans and Australians love to hate each other," Boucher explained. "It was quite emotional for guys in the dressing-room. They realised what had happened on that tour. The Australian crowd had come to fall in love with a captain they actually hated. I've never seen it before."

On homecoming South Africa were hailed but then humbled when they lost to Australia in the return series. That was the last time Smith captained a team in a series defeat. It was 14 series ago - an incredible run that includes South Africa's rise to No.1 and another series win in Australia. Even just those two things in isolation would leave many wondering what there is left to achieve.

Smith has decided there is not anything. Combined with an accident to his young daughter and a lean patch personally, he has also decided it is not worth battling on to try and engineer something and Boucher can understand. "When Jacques wasn't quite up to it, his technique took over and he could still score runs. Graeme's technique is not as good as Jacques so he needs a bit of heart, a bit of passion and enthusiasm to get out there and dominate so his technique won't put into a situation when it was questioned.

"He probably woke up a couple of mornings ago and realised he was battling to get himself up for this challenge. When that happens he probably gets exposed a bit more than a guy who has a good technique."

Those comments could be seen as a criticism of Smith's methods of slicing and clubbing his runs but Smith will not take that away. By his own admission, he "made a career of looking ugly," and embraced his awkward technique because it worked for him. He does not expect it to be copied.

"If I had a boy, I don't think I'd want to get him to bat the Graeme Smith bats," Pollock joked. "I'd rather go down the Kallis or AB de Villiers route. But that's the nice thing about cricket. You've got different techniques and not all of them are from the MCC coaching manual."

Kallis said Smith's heavy bottom-hand and leg-side preference meant, "you always feel like you can get him out lbw, so he sucks you into it." In-form, Smith could take a delivery from a yard outside off stump and find a way to force it through the on-side. Out of form, he looks clumsy and unsure and that is how he lurched through most of this series.

What he never let slip was the emphasis he placed on team-spirit. South Africa began this series with a bush weekend with Boucher as part of his Save the Rhino campaign. They tried to maintain the same close bonds that they formed over the last 18 months. Smith made sure he led them as best he knew how. "He is very strong on culture and tradition and that's something he set up in his time," Kallis said.

But even the person who held it all together eventually could not hold on anymore. Although the timing of the announcement is awkward, both Pollock and Kallis believed he chose the right moment. "If you had to pick a time, it's probably the right time," Pollock said. "If you look at what's coming, there's a Test series of Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and then West Indies at home. No disrespect to any of them but it's a bit of honeymoon period now where the new captain can sort out what works for him."

Who that new captain is will be decided in the next few months. For now it is all about Smith, and Kallis has asked for it to stay that way. "I just hope South Africans get behind and appreciate what Graeme has done for South African cricket," he said. Having recently retired himself, Kallis said he "can recommend it," because "it's been nice to do stuff away from the cricket and it will be for Graeme. Rather he retire too early than too late."

Smith is now 33. He has played his last Test. Against Australia. At Newlands. He has grown up completely. He is a husband and a father and he has decided his time as an international cricketer is up. He will celebrated and he deserves to be.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent