In Come to Think of It, we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom. This week, we wonder if Graeme Smith the captain has unfairly overshadowed Graeme Smith the batsman
I'm going to cheat a little. I'm not busting any myths here, or revisiting commonly accepted wisdoms or opinions, or nuancing an argument, the planks on which this series lives. Instead, this is a re-appreciation. Actually, no, this is slightly more complicated. This is a disentangling. Specifically, this is a disentangling of Graeme Smith's captaincy from Graeme Smith's batting.
Is this even necessary?
Well, think of Smith's legacy right now. Not to everyone, but to a sizeable majority he is first this immense leader. That's perfectly natural, given not only that his entire international career was basically played out as captain but that he is really one of the most successful and durable captains of the modern age.
His list of leadership achievements is as long as it is rich. He was the first captain of any country to triumph in Australia in 16 years; there were series wins in England, the No. 1 Test ranking, an unbeaten away streak that lasted nearly a decade. And some of South Africa's finest cricketers flowered under him. On any CV that's all going to be front and centre. And now the longer he goes in his role as director of cricket in South Africa - an off-field captain - the more we'll be inclined to remember him as a leaderly figure.
Some of it is the residue from when he first arrived, South Africa needing a leader more than they needed an opener. Hansie Cronje had happened. The 2003 World Cup had happened. Openers they had. Gary Kirsten and Herschelle Gibbs had been around a while and had it okay, averaging nearly 42 as a pair, one left-handed, one right, one a bit dour, one a bit flash. Another opener, fine, but a captain? Yes, please.
So it was that Smith's two primary tasks, of captaincy and opening, became enmeshed. coming quickly to be seen through the same prism. His batting was judged and analysed in the same ways that captaincy is: either in the limited and binary terms of wins and losses, or then by intangible measures, like rip-roaring dressing-room speeches or how other players are empowered. When he scored runs, Smith wasn't playing great innings per se; he was leading from the front or playing captain's knocks. When he scored runs, it enhanced the value of his leadership more than it did his batting credentials.
The point of all of which is that it is worth disentangling/reminding/re-appreciating how much of a colossus Smith was as an opener, because he was. There was the freak start: he averaged 58 as deep as 25 Tests into his career. There was the sheer run-getting: three double-hundreds (two great grandaddies of 250-plus) and a 151 in his first 12 Tests.
An idiosyncratic style added to the aura, not unlike his present-day namesake who bowlers - let alone the rest of us - can't figure out. For a while in those early days Smith came at teams with all the might of grief. You couldn't stop him (like you can't beat grief). You let him happen to you and hoped to cope. In those days, his captaincy was best known for a Nasser Hussain putdown.
Over time, as all batsmen do, he regressed to the mean, but averaging over 50 as late as his 102nd Test, as he was, that mean was hardly ordinary. It was a great age for batting but how many openers were definitively better than him? Better to watch, sure: Hi Viru. Part of more successful sides, yes: G'day Haydos. Written, talked about and seen more, no doubt: Hello Cooky, Straussy.
Better? There are any number of ways through which to understand how good Smith was. Simple ones, like this list, atop which he sits: most runs and most hundreds of any Test openers during his career span and fourth-highest average among those with more than 2500 runs. His away average (nearly 55). Even, for that matter, his home average (41.52), which doesn't look special, except that South Africa was among the tougher places to open in.
There are more refined measures, such as the one that shows him as one of only three batsmen to average 35-plus in every country they've played in (out of the 170 who have played a minimum of two Tests in at least eight countries). In that small room he has Sachin Tendulkar and Allan Border for company.
But by far the best way is to look at the fourth innings. This was Smith's territory, no questions asked, no quarter given; a phase of Tests where his record is not merely great, it is all-time. Only Tendulkar has more runs than him in the fourth innings - 11 more - but there's no contest here.
Parse that record down, and Smith pulls away from any batsman who has ever played the game. A certain scepticism is allowed after such a line - ultimately, one might say, any data can be sliced any which way to prove anything. Not here, though. However you get to it, the conclusion is the same: there have been few, if any, better in that stretch of a Test.
Consider that he's the only batsman in the history of the game to score over a thousand runs in successful fourth-innings chases. We're not talking easy fourth-innings chases either - nearly two-thirds of those runs (715 out of 1141) came in chases of 200-plus, and 200-plus looks innocuous but covers chases of 335, 414 and 281. The next on that list - Gordon Greenidge - is more than 200 runs behind. Smith has more hundreds in those chases - four - than anyone else.
No man chases by himself, of course, and Smith could lean on Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers at various stages. But even among them Smith was the predominant batsman in these chases. In the eight successful 200-plus chases he was involved in - and instinctively, we can appreciate that is a lot of successful chases - Smith scored a third of the runs. Repeat this to yourself: one batsman in your side, in a wide range of tricky-to-impossible chases, is a banker to get you as many as a third of the runs. How much easier does that make it? That proportion is the highest of all time, beating out Greg Chappell and - let's just casually drop this here - the Don.
The list of his fourth-innings exploits is long and arguably richer. The 154 not out at Edgbaston is Smith's defining innings, the 108 in Perth not far behind, though it probably shares space with de Villiers' 106 not out. It shouldn't, because it was Smith who set the very bullish tone of that chase.
The first of them all, in Wellington, was as good as any. Smith's captaincy was just five Tests old and he'd been absolutely schooled in captaincy by Stephen Fleming all tour. Chris Martin was on fire all Test and South Africa found themselves 36 for 3 in the chase and yet found themselves home.
One forgotten innings came in a last-day draw, not long after that match in New Zealand. Smith was down with viral flu on the first day of the Galle Test, but by the final day was batting South Africa through to safety against Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan and AN Others.
There's more, but this doesn't need spelling out any longer - nobody was more effective than Smith in these situations.
The use of "effective" is deliberate, because that is how Smith wants it. Effective. Every batsman wishes to be effective, but the very point of this is that not everyone is able to be so. Smith was, which is what makes him great.
But effective has another implication for batting, in that it's a proxy for ugly. Smith wasn't, by common consent, a pretty batsman - Rob Moody isn't up all night cutting Graeme Smith videos to brighten our days with - which only feeds into how his batting loses out to his captaincy. Think of it this way. When you remember Brian Lara in Bridgetown, the fact that he was captain is an afterthought to the fact of his batsmanship. When you recall Smith's 154 not out, the conversation quickly becomes about his leading from the front, or by example, as captain.
The thing is that beauty is rarely a deliberate pursuit for batsmen. They grow up playing as they play, products ultimately of nature and nurture. They don't try to be pretty or crabby, they are what they are. We put the label on them, but labels, we know, are woolly. I'm not going to make a case here that there was beauty in Smith's play, although I could argue that some of the repertoire - the late dabbed cut, or an impeccably timed push wide of mid-on - was beautiful in a weird, not-quite-right way. Like Adrien Brody or Benedict Cumberbatch.
But because nobody goes gaga for his strokeplay, we fall back to his leadership to praise his batting. And in that passes by the great skill and technique; the range of strokes; the occasionally and deceptively loose wrists that kept singles coming; the strength of forearm that kept boundaries coming; the movement of the feet to spin as he expanded his game; the understanding of different conditions and bowlers, to remember that one bowler does this here and that somewhere else - just a few of the very tangible tools that signal to us nothing about captaincy but everything about great batting.
More Come to Think of it here