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The cricketing world was incredulous. When the team began their 2003 tour to England, Graeme Smith was patronised and derided. People said he would have to learn the hard way. When South Africa were thrashed in the NatWest Series final, he did. But then came the Test series and Edgbaston and Lord's. He imposed his will upon England emphatically with compassionless innings of 277, 85 and 259. Never had the tone for a series been set so devastatingly.
Smith took on and crushed all-comers. His body language in the field contrasted sharply with the two England captains on show, Michael Vaughan and Nasser Hussain. Hussain, plainly worried that he had "lost" his team at Edgbaston, veered between a Zen-like calm and indignant intensity. At the end of the game, he resigned. Vaughan, at first, looked lost in his new role. Though six years older than Smith, he seemed like the tyro. His opponent, throughout, gave the impression of confidence, optimism and certainty.
GRAEME CRAIG SMITH was born on February 1, 1981 in Johannesburg, the son of Graham, an electrical engineer, and Janet, a draughtswoman. Two thrift and hard work; and the importance of sport. Smith played provincial soccer until 14 and represented his school at rugby. Cricket, though, was always the thing. At the age of 19, Smith scored 187 on his first-class debut and stuck a series of short-things were ingrained from the start: the traditional middle-class values of, medium- and long-term goals to his fridge; he had achieved the lot within three years. To captain South Africa was the ultimate. "I've been dreaming of this moment all my life," he said when given the job.
At a stroke, Smith's appointment allowed South Africa to leave behind the two issues that have dogged the team. He was only nine when Nelson Mandela was released from jail and spent his teenage years, at King Edward's School in Johannesburg, in a society that had moved on from apartheid. Unlike the previous generation, he had no reason to feel guilty and no need to look back. He was the perfect age to mould a team that could be representative of all South Africans. He was also free of the more recent taint: he had never played with or against Hansie Cronje.
During the one-day games in England there were mutterings about Smith's "closed-face" technique and propensity to play across the line, but he soon silenced the doubters, gloriously. The series was not yet halfway through and England were sick of the sight of him and still trying to work out any plan at all. He is leg-side dominant, unlike many other left-handers, but with an ability to cut the ball well outside off stump. Throughout most of the series, England's fielders in the slips waited in vain; by not opening the face he made them redundant.
Only one thing remains for Smith himself to work out. His casual attitude towards sledging and on-field aggression is an anachronism, a throwback to the late 1980s before match referees were brought in to clean up the game. Rightly, he wants to emulate the success of the Australians. He can do it without imitating their worst excesses. If he can find it in himself to pursue his goals alongside his wider responsibilities to the game, he can be the leader that South Africa and international cricket need.