Smith's no-show stokes fans' wrath
After seven weeks battling tough, foreign conditions at the World Cup, most players would be forgiven for wanting a break. There's the odd one, like Ricky Ponting who may be fighting to prove a point and will go straight into another series, but some, like Shahid Afridi, will welcome some rest. Another - Graeme Smith, who stepped down as South Africa's ODI captain after the tournament - used the downtime to move on with his life.
Smith did not return to South Africa with the rest of his team-mates 10 days ago, even though the World Cup was his last assignment as captain. For a few days, there was no word of his whereabouts, but then it emerged he had flown to Ireland to be with his girlfriend Morgan Deane. In that time, the pair became engaged, a fairytale ending for Smith's mini-vacation.
Nothing about that story would have been considered unusual had South Africa not crashed out of the tournament in spectacular fashion, losing in the quarter-finals to New Zealand. The team's record of never having won a knockout game in a World Cup stayed intact and, after bringing their most dynamic squad to the tournament as well as their best attitude, answers were needed. A section of South African fans had wanted those answers from Smith himself, even though he had stepped down as skipper.
Strictly speaking, Smith gave them his thoughts when he addressed the media, and the public, at a post-match press conference in Dhaka. It was a medium that was slightly removed from the South African public, but as had they watched the television inserts and read the stories, they would have had his explanation. However, because they wanted it first hand, they have since called his no-show everything from cowardly to just plain selfish.
The real crux of the fans' anger lies somewhere in the galaxy that has become social networking, because unlike a face-to-face conversation, the two parties can't simply part amicably and wait until the next time they meet to resume talking. On the internet there is no next time, there is simply all the time. When Smith started the conversation with his fans, the day he opened a Twitter account, that was something he either should have known or should have had told to him by his employers, Cricket South Africa.
He is not the most active tweeter, unlike AB de Villiers or JP Duminy, but he is still out there. During the tournament, he posted a few times. After the loss against England, he said: "I believe in this team…we have the opportunity to shape today and tomorrow and we will be there when it counts. Thx to our loyal supporters." It was the kind of message that helps the die-hards keep the faith and draws the disbelievers in, and fuelled his following on the site.
However, his last message is dated March 16th: "So gonna be offline in Bangladesh…thx for all your supportive messages for the team. Chat soon. : -)" How soon, the fans may have wondered? They didn't want anything specific from him, he didn't have to say that he was sorry, like Afridi did, he didn't have to admit that South Africa were outplayed and out-thought like Daniel Vettori did after New Zealand's semi-final loss to Sri Lanka. He just had to say something, so his followers didn't feel abandoned.
The situation was not helped by Cricket South Africa (CSA) announcing a press gathering on the day the team landed back in the country. The branding went along the lines of "come to the airport to welcome the boys home". The arrival was marketed needlessly, creating a hype that should only have happened had the team returned victorious. Had the players slipped back into the country and a small press conference been held, few would have noticed Smith's absence.
The magnitude of the event didn't allow for that and it was immediately evident that he had not flown home. The team management said he had stayed away for "personal reasons," revealing no more about where he was. It was outgoing coach Corrie van Zyl and team manager Mohammed Moosajee who addressed the media, not Smith. Instead of reacting with mild irritation which wore off, some South Africans have behaved like scorned lovers.
Their jokes about Smith's relationship have had a nasty edge, as though they are deliberately taunting him. "Graeme Smith's fiancee bought him cuff links, he bought her a choker," was one of the more cunning and less vulgar ones. In their sarcasm, they've failed to see that Smith did something completely human by taking some time off after a tough period. In his hope for privacy what Smith and his management failed to do was be prepared for the effects of a growing culture of no privacy that social media creates.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent