South Africa v Sri Lanka, 5th ODI, Johannesburg January 22, 2012

Steely Smith silences dissident voices

Graeme Smith has had to prove himself to the public and media on many occasions in the last year. In the final game of the home season, he answered them in the best manner possible

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.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on January 24, 2012, 10:22 GMT

    Moaning that Smith lost the game or was selfish is simply not supported by the stats and smacks of looking for a scapegoat in a tight game.

    Smith's Strike Rate was low (87%), but he was the anchor player. Firstly, a lower strike rate after the 3rd over dismissal of Petersen is to be expected. Second, for the next 14 overs (until he was dismissed), DuPlessis, faced 66 ball (11 overs) and only scored 24 with a strike rate of 60%! Things picked up from the 17th over, when DeVilliers came in and Smith played a solid second fiddle to AB from there in.

    Finally, the average ODI 1st innings score at the Wanderers is 248. 312 was a very competitive score and there were few complaints until SL started their innings all guns blazing.

  • Sudath on January 24, 2012, 10:13 GMT

    As usual this commentator has got nothing to say about Sr lanka here, because as so many other so called South Africans with Indian origins including the un high commissioner for human rights are having a grudge with Sri Lankans. Specially this writer may be very angry by seeing what happens to the Indians in Australia. Wait and see everyone. The world champions will be decided here in Aus not in dust buckets of India or Sri lanka for that matter.

  • Dummy4 on January 24, 2012, 9:54 GMT

    Not everyone in our team can be Amla, DeVilliers or Kallis with the bat and form waxes and wanes. That said, Smith's stats speak for themselves. He's a solid opener - often performing when it really matters.

    Nobody 'new' has performed to the point that Smith's place is in danger. Rudolph, Botha, DuPlessis, Ingram,? Either they haven't performed when given a shot or they are better lower in the order. To replace a 30 year old with his experience and stats, you'd have to be head and shoulders better - not just maybe better.

  • Dummy4 on January 24, 2012, 6:04 GMT

    Am a nigerian,and the only reason i became a mad cricket fan is becos of smith.his average is unbelievable for a captain and opener ,tell me who would combine dat duel role and do better..after 07 wc,many asked kallis to be drop,i wonder whr there are nw.

  • Craig on January 24, 2012, 4:52 GMT

    While the jury is still out on Smith as a test opener, he has two very obvious flaws which make him wholly unsuited to opening in ODI's or T20's. The first is his determination to play every ball he is bowled through the legside. Early in his career, when he was a relatively unknown quantity, he plundered many runs through this area, and hence the legend grew. "It's not pretty, but its effective" and comments like that. Now however, every international bowler knows of Smith's legside exploits and fields are set accordingly. They bowl across him and he invariably gets out trying to go legside. Smith's second problem is that he is not a natural six-hitter. He hits less than half of the sixes per innings than players like Sehwag and even Gibbs (whose record is really from a pre-IPL era, when totals were lower) and less than a third as many per innings as a player like Shane Watson. His scoring options are therefore limited, and hence his poor strike rate.

  • Mike on January 24, 2012, 4:15 GMT

    to TWIC: Wrong!! In fact, Sa has every right to expect our opening batsmen to consistemntly score 100's every game (or almost). Australia does. India does. England does. Why do we not? is that not what the top order batsmen are for? the reason they are there? Because they are the best, and can handle the pressure with the new ball? We MUST have better batsmen in SA.

    His stature seems to be what the foolish public seem to focus on. He LOOKS like a leader, so he must be one, right? NO!

    he does not cut it in tactical brilliance, batting, leadership, or even in inspirational ability. Teams led by him have consistently failed at the last hurdle, and do not have the killer instinct to be able to finish off a game or a series. Our test and ODI records are frankly, average. and what sucesses we have had have come DESPITE his dead wood dragging the team down, and not because of him.

    I for one am tired of us being second. Also rans. Screw that.

  • Nazeer on January 23, 2012, 11:37 GMT

    I find all these calls for Smith to step down from ODI's completely unwarranted and fueled mostly out of anger towards his post-World Cup no-show. Every batsman goes through bad patches, even more so do the openers. Graeme Smith is an absolute colossus, what he has done for South African cricket and what he is capable of in the future cannot be ignored. You can't expect a century from Smith every game like you can with Amla, but what you can expect is Smith's gutsy determination. He brings a great deal to the team, even when he is not performing.

    As for making way for youngsters, come on people Smith isn't even 31 yet, he easily has 6 or 7 years in him. Even Alviro Peterson is older than him!

  • Mark on January 23, 2012, 9:43 GMT

    It is sad that many in the public don't give Smith the credit he deserves. He admits to his mistakes and his attitude when he took over as captain and has grown since then. He is a great leader and a solid character and AB will need his experience as he grows as a captain. As a batsman he may not be pretty to watch, but when he is in form, he is destructive. He is still young and should his form be on the return, there is no reason to see him dropped or exit as Cricketluv suggests. Some of us had faith in him and I can now laugh at his detractors.

  • greig on January 23, 2012, 8:29 GMT

    Ummmmm can someone please tell me how Robin Peterson plays in team? bowls 5 or 6 overs, not great with the bat. WHY IS JOHAN BOTHA NOT PLAYING, IS HE INJURED!!!!

  • ankur on January 23, 2012, 7:48 GMT

    One 100 doesn't hide your in efficient performance for so long with the bat........Firdose's comments only tells me that their is no alternative for Smith in domestic cricket...

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