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A look back on some of Graeme Smith's best innings in Test cricket
March 5, 2014
The first salvo
South Africa were still recovering from a humiliating error in the 2003 World Cup. A 22-year-old was thrust the captaincy, so that the team could make a fresh start, and one of the first entries on his docket was a five-Test tour of England. Doubters circled thinking Graeme Smith was ripe prey, but they could only gawk as he laced a stunning 277 - an innings during which he became youngest captain to hit a Test ton - in Edgbaston. He reiterated his boundless appetite for runs with 259 at Lord's to set up an innings victory. And he did this with an injured finger, which was bashed further by Andrew Flintoff.
Smith's penchant for muting his detractors was just as rampant in his early career, and this time they had sufficient ammunition. He had become the first South Africa captain to drop a series against New Zealand in a 5-1 drubbing during the ODIs. Further ignominy waited as South Africa lost the second Test to go 0-1 down but in Wellington, Smith resurrected himself and his team with his maiden fourth-innings century to overcome a tricky chase and square the series with a day to spare - the first step in sealing his acclaim as a second-innings colossus. With 1198 runs at an average of 63, Smith was named one of Wisdens Cricketers of the Year in 2004.
Every left-hand batsman would dream of, perhaps at best, emulating Brian Lara but Smith buried the West Indies legend on their tour to the Caribbean in 2005. The captain was faced with questions after two poor tours of Sri Lanka and India, and his answer was three centuries in four innings to singlehandedly seal a 2-0 series win, and beat Lara's tally by over 200 runs (though he did play one extra Test). All of his tons - 148, 104 and 126 - epitomised Smith: a striking ability to set his side up at the top, an unrelenting thirst for three-figure scores and heaps of determination.
A patch that purple usually comes with consequences and Smith languished without a century for over two years until he dug in and, through sheer will, conquered his subcontinent bogey. An average of 34 in nine Tests was remedied by another second-innings marvel that cemented South Africa's ascendancy in the Lahore Test of 2007. He fought his way through 296 balls, a vast majority of which was against Danish Kaneria and Abdur Rehman's canny spinners that were gaining teeth on a wearing surface. Were it not for a century by Younis Khan - another second-innings expert - South Africa may well have gained a victory from Smith's toil.
Rescue at Lord's
Smith's rise to the top began in England, but things did not start off well when he returned in 2008. A decision to insert the hosts at Lord's backfired and Kevin Pietersen (152) and Ian Bell (199) walloped South Africa. After his captaincy was exposed for a lion's share of two days, he became one of seven players to register single-figures in the first innings that was not good enough to evade the follow-on. With everything stacked against him, Smith essayed one of his best rearguards - a 207-ball 107 - that not only helped South Africa escape with a draw but underlined Smith's remarkable skill to raise his game when most needed. There was little he hit across the line, and against Monty Panesar and his ploy to attack the rough, he positioned himself outside off and took the lbw out of the equation. One mistake could have lost South Africa the game, but it never came.
South Africa were chasing their first series victory in England in 43 years and Smith produced another second-innings century to ensure they left with accolade. It had been barely two weeks since he pulled off the Lord's rescue and once again Smith plumbed into his seemingly limitless reserves of defiance and was so successful that his 154 off 246 balls in Edgbaston accounted for 54% of the target. He blunted Panesar, again, smashed James Anderson and frustrated Flintoff to orchestrate one of South Africa's landmark wins. For further context of Smith's steel, the next best score was 45. "Ever since readmission, we have really strived for victory in England and have always been disappointed," he said after the game. "It's bigger than just us, this victory, and so I have to say it's my best."
Pacing it perfectly
His brutal 183 in Cape Town in 2010 was denied match-winning status by a dogged Ian Bell, but in Johannesburg Smith would not be denied. The requisite slice of luck came when he survived a caught-behind and that wake-up call was more than enough. His 105 off 187 balls, combined with Dale Steyn's menace, spearheaded South Africa to a comfortable innings win in under four days. In his first 69 balls Smith struck two fours in 24 runs, but when he brought up his hundred it was with his 16th. You can say his batting is not pretty, you can say he is not a purist, but you can never say Smith lacks the stomach for a fight; South Africa came from behind to square the series.
Reversing public opinion
November 2011. You display no spine in the first innings, concede a lead of 188 and then roar back to wrap the game up in three days. The bulk of the credit for that victory belongs to Vernon Philander, who picked up four wickets in his first five overs to snuff out Australia for 47, but there was still 236 to chase against an Australia attack that was no pushover. South Africa had to come out with a statement and they turned to their captain once again. Smith did not have as many happy recent memories to draw from, after leading another failed South Africa World Cup campaign and then drawing criticism for going to Ireland instead of returning home with the team. The cobwebs of surgery also hung fresh. The perfect recipe for another Smith classic and his fourth century in Cape Town sealed an eight-wicket victory to kick off the series and restore the fans' faith in him. He also became the highest run-scorer in successful fourth-innings chases.
The great Adelaide save
Questions had been asked of Smith's commitment to South Africa after he signed a three-year deal with Surrey. Michael Clarke, his opposite number, had enriched his Adelaide tally by 230. On this tour to Australia, in late 2012, South Africa were in dire need for a long and solid effort and Smith looked no further than himself to produce it. Melding patience and careful shot selection, he produced a vital century. For all of Faf du Plessis' heroics to save the game, the equation might have been unforgivingly stiffer without Smith, who has never scored a century and tasted defeat.
A roaring comeback
Six months out with a sore ankle and in his first series back, Smith reiterated his eagerness for a fight with his fifth double-century in Tests. As ever, it was sorely needed with South Africa folding tamely against Pakistan, in the previous Test, in Dubai. Smith does not like his side being outplayed. In Abu Dhabi he showed just how much he wanted them to come back strongly. He tackled the in-form left-arm quicks Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan, hardly wilted in the searing heat of the Middle East and also completed the small matter of scoring 9000 runs in Tests, 8428 of which came as captain.
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