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Graeme Smith, at 22, was an unexpected choice to lead South Africa. He learned the hard way but emerged through the tough times as an accomplished leader of men
January 31, 2013
Graeme Smith was driving up one of Cape Town's mountain roads, Constantia Nek, on Sunday, March 16, 2003 when he received a call from the then-chief executive of Cricket South Africa. Gerald Majola was not ringing to say hello, he had phoned to offer Smith the job of national captain.
"I found a yellow line and pulled over for about 10 minutes, heart beating. I was very proud but extremely nervous and fearful about what lay ahead," Smith said, recalling the moment. "I wondered if I would ever get the opportunity again and I felt like I could take it on. That was my nature at that age." So Smith agreed and cruised on. Little did he know the hills in the years to follow would get much higher than the ones his car climbed that day.
Although Smith was as shocked as any 22-year-old would be when Majola phoned him, he already had an inkling of what was coming. Shaun Pollock had been fired after South Africa's embarrassing exit from the 2003 World Cup they were hosting, and there was talk of change. Smith had been summoned to meet with the selectors twice and could sense "something was bubbling."
Pollock was defiant and refused to step down for the Duckworth/Lewis debacle but in the end he accepted his fate and even spoke to Smith about what to expect. "The day before it happened, I got a call from Shaun Pollock," Smith said. "He said 'they are going to offer you the job and I want you to take it.' That was the first moment when my heart fell through my stomach."
Things happened quickly for Smith in the months leading up to his appointment. He made his international debut just a year before and was still a rookie. He had played only eight Tests and 20 ODIs and had been left out of the original World Cup squad. It was a snubbing that hurt and one that in no way signified he was being thought of as the next leader.
Peter Kirsten, Smith's coach at Western Province, recalled how Smith was so determined to make the World Cup squad that he asked Kirsten if he could captain the B-side that would play warm-up matches against South Africa. Kirsten agreed, "because I could see a lot of potential," in Smith and was pleasantly surprised when the provincial team managed to beat the senior one.
Before that, Smith had not been an automatic choice as leader. When he played for the Gauteng Under-19 side Jimmy Cook, his long-time mentor, chose another youngster to captain. "Graeme was a year younger than most of the guys in the side so I didn't pick him," Cook told ESPNcricinfo. "I knew he would play for South Africa because he was so strong-minded and focused and but I wouldn't say I always knew he would captain."
The captains Smith looked up to
Cook wasn't the only one surprised when Smith was chosen. For a country that usually shied away from bold moves, this was their most left-field decision. Today, Omar Henry and the panel that appointed Smith are hailed are visionaries. Ten years ago, their decision was regarded with circumspection and people waited for it to go wrong.
Smith must have known that he was an unusual choice. His brashness was mistaken for arrogance, when in fact he was only hiding insecurity. "We spoke about the captaincy and what he could expect and how it could affect his own game," Smith said. "He felt that he had to be ultra tough to show that he was up for it."
Smith has since acknowledged that his hard exterior was just part of his own uncertainty. "The senior players offered me support but at that stage, in my mind, captaining was just leading the team on the field. Never once did I understand what it actually entailed," Smith said. "Not many people get given the job at 22 so people had to be patient with me through those growth periods."
Jacques Kallis was one of the patient people. Kallis was well established when Smith was appointed and has played throughout Smith's career. Although it was as different for him to have a young captain as it was for anyone else, Kallis was willing to give it a chance.
"I thought it was good move but as Graeme will say, he made a few mistakes back then," Kallis said. "What I saw then was a bit of Hansie Cronje in him; he was aggressive on the field and wanted to win all the time."
As a result, on-field events did not reveal Smith's self-doubt. South Africa lost Test series in the subcontinent and one to England at home but they maintained a fairly good record. They also continued to be defeated by a dominant Australia but that did not cause as much public frenzy as their performance in the 2007 World Cup. Smith was in contact with Cook throughout that event because he was feeling unsure and that soon translated on to the field.
South Africa had lost to Australia in the group stages in the Caribbean, and they collapsed against them again in the semi-final. After that Smith felt things begin to change. He began to understand he would have to be a man-manager in addition to his on-field responsibilities.
Having been in the job for five years, Smith felt more confident in taking control. "I have always been determined and always had a good resilience, but I really felt that from the back end of 2007 was the first time I got a grasp of what the job was all about."
It was also just before South Africa's Test run away from home started. They lost to Sri Lanka in 2006 but then beat India and Pakistan at home and Pakistan away in 2007. They had finally conquered difficult terrain and it was the start of their building for the long walk to No.1.
With Mickey Arthur as coach, Smith became the first South African captain to win in England and Australia. South Africa's fast bowlers had developed into a potent unit, their top six were all contributing and Smith was scoring big runs all over the world. When Arthur resigned at the beginning of 2010, after a drawn home series against England, Smith faced his biggest test.
Corrie van Zyl was named interim coach until the end of the 2011 World Cup, which was seen as South Africa's to win. Test cricket was still at the forefront, and the 2010-11 series against India was one of five contests South Africa played in that could have taken them to the top of the rankings had they won, but an ICC trophy was just as desirable.
South Africa pulled out all the stops. They took three spinners to the tournament and experimented with strategies that included giving the slow bowlers the new ball. They were the only team to have bowled out the opposition in every group match and faced with New Zealand in the quarter-finals.
An almighty choke in Mirpur gave Smith his darkest day as captain; it was his last ODI as leader and the exit from the World Cup was made worse by him not coming home with his team. "The 2011 World Cup was the toughest time in my career. My own self-esteem and self-confidence really took a whack," he said. "I was trying to figure out if I was really the right person to try to take the team forward."
When Smith returned to the field he had a new wife on his arm but was booed at every venue in the country, until he scored a match-winning century in the mayhem against Australia in Cape Town. Slowly, he began winning back support. "A lot of the emotions from fans is driven by results so I've been proud of the way I am able to consistently perform in my own game," he said. "Opening the batting is tough so if I can do that well, that helps."
Only once Smith had regained support did he reveal he had considered walking away from the leadership altogether, but South Africa's new coach, his old opening partner Gary Kirsten, convinced him not to. "Gary played a big role in me carrying on, which I am very grateful for because I feel that my leadership has been at a really high level now and the team success has been good. I am grateful that Gary pushed me on to carry on."
In continuing, Smith was able to finally reap the rewards of his years of sowing. He led South Africa to series win in England and Australia again, this time to claim the No.1 ranking and keep it. Finally, he was in charge of a champion side. He also played his 100th Test in that time and broke Allan Border's record for most Tests as captain. "The resilience to still be here after a long time is the greatest achievement because of the pressures that you face and the responsibilities. Winning back to back in England and Australia is the greatest achievement of my career."
Although perhaps an intangible prize, he has earned the respect of a generation of players. Of the current Test team, only Kallis has known a different captain and he ranks Smith as the one of the best he has played under. "His man-management has really been the biggest improvement, he learnt how to captain individuals as he grew up," Kallis said. "The players back him and believe in him."
Morne Morkel, for example, calls Smith, "The Voice," because "when he speaks you put down everything to listen." Vernon Philander credited Smith with helping him integrate into the Test side, as did Faf du Plessis.
Smith had previously indicated he did not want to captain until he retires but he is enjoying the job so much now that his view may change. Although he has accomplished a lot, he still wants more and believes he has more to offer as a leader.
"For the last five years, I've really felt I've been in control of the leadership and the direction of the team and myself," Smith said. "The early years was a lot about learning and developing so I really feel like I've only been captaining for five or six years in a proper way. I'd also love to be able to play in another World Cup and really perform."
With the World Cup being perhaps the only unaccomplished thing on Smith's CV, there is no better time than now, in his 100th Test as captain, for the administrators to pay tribute. CSA have dedicated the first day of the Wanderers Test against Pakistan to Biff - a nickname given to Smith because Justin Kemp thought he "played like a buffel." Smith said he had "tried to run away from that name for half my life but now it's a hasthtag."
#biff100 will be used all day on Twitter. The crowd will sing Happy Birthday to him at tea, when a giant cake will be presented and an equally large replica shirt with messages from fans. Special guests include the country's sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, who called Smith a "paragon of human perfection," and Olympic medalist Cameron van der Burgh, who will ring the bell to start play.
While the country is paying homage to Smith, he did the same for his family. "I have to pay tribute to my parents and my brother. They have always been the pillars I have been able to build off. My folks used to drive me back and forth to many sports games and gave me the opportunity to play. My brother used to lob 20kph throw-downs at me and I would smack them back, sometimes into his shin. Those are the platforms I built my career on."
To have a launch pad is one thing but to take off from it as Smith has done can only happen through learning important lessons along the way. The next time Smith drives up Constantia Nek, he may be reminded of the most telling one his captaincy has taught him. "When things are tough and problems are steep, you've got to push through."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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