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

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