Steely Smith silences dissident voices
Graeme Smith gets a certain steely look in his eyes when he is about to launch an assault. As captain, it's a look he has often worn when addressing the media. The slits in his eyes become narrower, the space between them develops a strained stretching, not quite a frown, not quite a scowl.
In the last year, this expression has become an almost permanent one for Smith. He has battled through what has likely been the hardest 12 months of his nine-year career. At the end of a bruising summer, he has come through having given reason to prolong his stay in both Tests and ODIs and has shown a strength of character that few can criticise.
Given Smith's stature, it's easy to forget that he has grown into adulthood as a leader, having, in his own words, "stupidly," accepted the captaincy at the age of 22. Since then, he has won 16 Test series at the helm, losing only seven and drawing eight. Under Smith, South Africa won 20 ODI series and lost 11, including two World Cups. They were knocked out of both in the face of massive expectation. The second failure changed Smith.
In some ways, it broke him. Smith started the tournament more bullish than normal and his reactions through it went from confident to crippled (after the loss to England in Chennai) and the cycle repeated itself, only much worse the second time.
He has always been an abrasive figure among the South African public, who saw him as a schoolboy bully rather than an inspirational captain. At the start of the 2011-12 season, they were so irritated by his no-show after the World Cup exit and his lack of form, particularly in the one-day game, that they decided to let him know it.
Smith was booed at every venue around the country, including his home ground Newlands. Redemption came, first with a hard-fought half-century against Australia in Port Elizabeth and then a match-winning century in the Test but the goodwill did not last long. Smith treaded water in the Test series against Sri Lanka and his one-day form remained questionable. He was booed again.
After three innings without much to show for it, the axe was wielded again, this time from people with clout. Andrew Hudson, convenor of selectors, confirmed to ESPNcricinfo before the fourth ODI in Bloemfontein that, "the opening position is something that will come up for discussion." He stressed that anyone in the national team could be dropped but it was telling that he mentioned the top two.
The team management felt differently. AB de Villiers, the one-day captain, defended Smith. Gary Kirsten, the coach, believed Smith deserved more of a chance than others because of the years of service he has given to the national team. Other sources close to the squad said Smith was feeling the heat despite the cushioning. He realised that if he was dropped from the one-day squad in the near future, he would probably never find his way back in.
Much like his Australian counterpart, Ricky Ponting, he walked a tightrope onto the pitch in Kimberley, perhaps not as precarious as Ponting's in Sydney but close enough. And just like Ponting in the Sydney Test, Smith responded the only way he knew. An aggressive 68 could have been much more in that match but Smith had started to make his point.
No matter how much he scratched around, he eventually settled. No matter how ugly his shots were, they ended in results. Every mow of his bat silenced another dissident voice. When he gave it away, he knew he had missed out.
In Johannesburg, he started in the same unsure fashion and mistimed shots through the offside in almost every over. Luckily, he found the gaps, and even when he went aerial, landed safely. The first ball he really middled was the one that brought up his half-century, the classic Smith mow through midwicket. It's not pretty, it's not supposed to be, but it captures the way he plays the game.
From there on, Smith became brutal. He swatted the ball as though it had the words written on it, like the ones appearing in the press all week. End of one-day career? Take that, over backward point. Losing his touch? Flat-bat that through mid-on. Time to consider his options? Slog sweep that thought over fine leg and into the crowd.
When Smith's hundred came, in a much quieter fashion, his celebration was telling. He pointed at the changeroom in gesture of gratitude for the faith they showed in him that the rest of the cricketing world did not. Maybe that was why his 360 swivel to the crowd was short and sweet.
Smith will live another day in the coloured kit and has all but booked his seat on the early flight to New Zealand. He was absent at the post-match press conference but it was de Villiers who spoke on his behalf. "Graeme's feet are still on the ground but deep inside I can see that he is very proud," de Villiers said. "And we are all very proud of him. That's the least he deserved today." The South African public, even those who are not fond of Smith, will agree.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent