South Africa news March 6, 2014

South African cricket's father figure

For 11 years, Smith has done a job that in other countries many people do not hold on to for even one. It is a task that requires taking responsibility, selflessness and meeting enormous expectation, much like parenthood

Two days after South Africa lost their third Test match in as many years, beyond the security gates at OR Tambo International Airport, a man was running after a delighted 18-month-old girl. She was giggling and squealing as she wobbled along and he was allowing her to enjoy her mock escape. It could have been any father entertaining any child except that these were not any people. The man was Graeme Smith. The toddler was his daughter Cadence.

She has grown up in cricket's spotlight, after being born during South Africa's tour to England in 2012, and is something of an unofficial sunshine-bringer to the dressing room. Children often are. Their carefree approach to life is something adults envy when they age. Since having two of his own, Smith has found his again. It has been a long time coming for the oldest 33-year-old cricket has known.

For 11 years, Smith has done a job that in other countries many people do not hold on to for even one. It is a task that requires taking responsibility, selflessness and meeting enormous expectation, much like parenthood. It is no coincidence Smith looks the kind of father any little one would be lucky to have. He got enough practice by being a captain.

Very few people in their early 20s are ready to have someone totally dependent on them and Smith was no exception. His immediate response to the role thrust upon him then was to meet it head on. He behaved like the moniker given to him: Biff short for Buffel (the Afrikaans for buffalo).

If you have come across a herd of buffalo, you will know that when they start moving, you have to stop. They advance languidly, they occupy space a few hundred metres at a time and if they decide you are worth looking at, they do it with absolute disdain. You are left in no doubt as to who is boss. Same with Smith.

When he took over, he was brash, he was bold and he said silly things. Anyone who was asked to assume authority early would have done a similar thing. That was the early Smith, the one who handled his baby awkwardly but competently enough, the one who was not too sure he was always doing the right thing but who managed to get the kid to stand on its own two feet.

By 2007, phase two had begun. Teenage-hood. Smith had led the side for five years and a World Cup. He was comfortable and confident. Perhaps overly so in both departments. The team he led had a reputation of being a bit of a boys' club. Mostly in their mid-20s, they were the equivalent of high-school jocks. They played the game hard, they partied hard. They were a little too full of themselves.

They thought they knew it all and there was not much evidence to argue with that on that front. In the three years that followed the 2007 World Cup, they won series in England and Australia and drew in India. But there was one thing that reminded them they did not know it all. There was no ICC trophy in their cabinet despite three chances to claim one.

He took the team in when it was abandoned by men who could not read rain calculations and scolded it into submission. He brought it up the way he wanted it to turn out. He saw it mature into something he could be proud of

Smith bore the brunt of that bile. He had come through an indifferent period in limited-overs cricket, underlined by how many matches he had missed, which included home and away series against Australia, because of his arm and hand injuries and it seemed he was losing ground as a shorter-format player.

In August 2010, he confirmed that. Smith stepped down as captain of the Twenty20 side and said he would give up leadership in the 50-over game after the 2011 World Cup. At the press conference he held to announce his decision, Smith looked defensive and defiant.

He wanted it to be known that he was not quitting or giving up. He was simply allowing the younger children to take over because he believed they were ready and it would free him up to concentrate on himself for a change. That day he said he still thought he had "five or six years," of cricket at the highest level still in him and one of his goals was to capture a World Cup in that time.

South Africa compiled what they thought was the most suitable squad for sub-continent conditions to go to the 2011 tournament. It included three spinners and a range of batsmen, including Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, who had proven themselves there before. They left these shores with optimism and hope packed as tightly into their bags as cricket kit.

On arrival in India, Smith got tetchy. He bristled with irritation and snapped at journalists whenever they brought up South Africa's history of choking. After they lost to England on a crumbling pitch in Chennai, Smith looked close to combusting with fury. He reacted like someone whose little ones were being picked on and bullied. He protected them with aggression.

Things changed after the quarter-final defeat. That day Smith did not shout as much. His eyes were almost empty as he searched for a way to explain what had happened. It was obvious that he wanted nothing more than to get out of there and the moment his official business was over, he did. He did not return to South Africa. He took a break, went to Ireland and asked Morgan Deane to be his wife. The humiliation of a World Cup defeat became a love story, though not everyone liked it at the time. Their child was growing up.

They did take a liking to Morgan, though. She was feisty and funny. She posted things on social media that made most people blush. But none of that would have mattered if she had not changed the captain. Before our eyes, Smith turned from a captain into a person and it is this stage of his career that we will remember most. It is when he blossomed at the side of his bride.

Smith actually did not want to carry on captaining then. He had something else to focus on. It was up to Gary Kirsten, his old opening partner, who convinced him to continue. Kirsten wanted Smith at the helm on the journey to No.1. Having been on that road for some time, the chance to see a promised pot of gold at the end was too much for Smith to turn down.

He may have if he was not allowed to embark on it as the big daddy. Kirsten changed the culture of the national side to become more of a family, which was just the way Smith liked it. With those traditional values in place, South African cricket took its biggest leap.

They claimed the Test mace in England while Smith was entering his first weeks of fatherhood; they defended it in Australia, despite losing a player to a snapped Achilles' tendon in the first match. JP Duminy, the hero of their 2008-09 trip was ruled out and Cadence Smith, a mere four months old, was one his first visitors in hospital.

Last week, Cadence had an accident with boiling water. She required time in hospital and, understandably, the full attention of her parents. They gave it to her, so much so that Smith moved the announcement of his retirement to the middle of the Test match instead of the start.

Cadence is doing fine. She is running around and giggling, perhaps not as much as she was two weeks' ago but enough for even a casual observer to know she has come through okay. The night before his last day as an international cricketer Smith and his wife had dinner at an upmarket restaurant close to Newlands. He looked weary but happy. He also looked free. He looked like a parent whose children had finally moved out.

That is what Graeme Smith has been to South African cricket. A father-figure. He took the team in when it was abandoned by men who could not read rain calculations and scolded it into submission. He brought it up the way he wanted it to turn out. He saw it mature into something he could be proud of. Many men do that but few do it for a cricket team. Now Smith can go and do that for his own children. He deserves nothing less.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • nalin on March 7, 2014, 13:46 GMT

    Elevation of Smith to captaincy at age of 22 was the most inspirational decision by South Africa a country that usually make conservative predictable decisions and his leadership gelled the team and allowed it to rise to number 1. The south Africa Australia series is now risen to a top of the table title bout as opposed to mythical test championship that may never occur. I feel SA_AUS test series should be played consecutively across two countries say a 5-6 series with 2-3 matches in SA and 3 matches in Australia every 4 years. They should give the no name trophy a name. One commentator suggested Kallis Ponting trophy perhaps Smith may deserve some recognition but to do the history of the series justice it should be called TRUMPER TO POLLOCKS TROPHY. The series began with Australian domination till the 60s to 1970 with 2 Pollocks they achieved greatness and post apartheid SA were competitive and rose to the top with one Pollock playing his role.

  • Anura on March 7, 2014, 4:56 GMT

    What a leader. He really showed the world of sports that the true leaders are born and the Age, seniority or time spent in a team does not matter. If you are a true leader you can manage anyone. All you need is to be a good human being, act firm and fair, respect others and the ability to extract the best according to each persons talent and ability. Smith really got everyone around to play for the country,team and him (in that order). All the other leaders should take him as an example and it they are able even to fulfill 90% of these requirements they will be great captains. Good luck Graeme the world of cricket will miss you. A Sri Lankan fan.

  • Android on March 6, 2014, 18:48 GMT

    i think rexton is correct actually.

  • Android on March 6, 2014, 18:46 GMT

    get what u r saying but this article is soft and the analogy a very long bow. seems u tried too hard to draw comparison.

  • chami on March 6, 2014, 17:32 GMT

    this was a big mistake leave cricket, he is just 33 should take off Kalis role ... stepping down from Captaincy make seance, this is the reason you should not put ppl when they are young ... look at SL Mahela, Sanga and Dilshan all are contributing ... very well.

  • Dummy4 on March 6, 2014, 15:59 GMT

    Smith has been an exemplary leader of all good aspects he has upheld as a cricketer. Laughing out on occasions when to gave his side a move-on instruction. He has had a natural gift of confidence in his own abilities, hence an automatic leader. He was polite, friendly yet competitive and dominating (Very naturally). I do not see anyone more comparable, in characteristics of naturally fitting to his role, with Smith then the (Late) Christopher Reeve (The iconic Superman actor).

  • Android on March 6, 2014, 15:30 GMT

    @Rexton87, dude u seem to missing the whole logic of what captaincy is all about. It is not about just all what you have written, captaincy is an art, thatz y there are rare artists-Real Captains. Take Imran Khan for example, take Stephen Fleming, take Hansie Cronje, take Allan Border or Mark Taylor even Steve waugh Clarke etc.

    i think you are watching too much of Cook and Dhoni lately.

    Grow up man.... get your outlook clear about Captaincy.

  • Dummy4 on March 6, 2014, 15:25 GMT

    @rexton87 , captaining a team in south africa is nothing like captaining other nations.

    THings he had to deal with : Politics, post hansie saga and pollock messup. All this at a tender age of 22.

  • Reece on March 6, 2014, 14:24 GMT

    Smithy I don't think there is anyone in the world who thinks of you as highly as I do, your records mean nothing to me, your hundreds, wins and losses don't mean as much as your contribution to our country. You were young 22, which is me in 5 years time. I can't comprehend the idea captaining my country in 5 years, but you stood firm against the best in the world, against the nay sayers and against the critics. It was a pleasure to meet you when I did and it was a pleasure to watch lead us to the top of the tree. Goodbye Graeme and have a great retirement, and I hope to see you back with the team soon, in what ever capacity.