As the circus that is World Cup comes to life in the subcontinent, a significant moment is upon South African cricket. Yes, the Proteas have headed eastward in effort to slay the ghost of Headingley past, but this will also be Graeme Smith’s last ODI adventure as captain of the side.
Just yesterday he was a 22-year-old in his debut series as captain against Bangladesh. Smith’s men then went to England, with many observers (English in orientation) believing at first glance Smith as a batsman was too dependent on scoring on the leg side, and that his footwork was average at best. As history records, they completely underestimated him.
He isn’t the most graceful of batsmen to watch, but when he walks to the crease he brings with him a presence that says “Bring. It. On”. He has his detractors, such as Clive Rice who has never been completely satisfied with the former Kes student, but Smith became the first South African captain to conquer Australia.
Though Smith will continue to lead the side in Test matches, a format that gives captains time to scheme and ponder, in ODIs he will become just another important team member. In Johan Botha, they have an able-minded replacement (though his wicket-taking ability as a spinner could still be improved). The perfect way for Smith to end his tenure would be to obviously win the World Cup, but I’m not even going to go there.
Smith’s made his ODI debut against Australia in Bloemfontein during the 2001/2002 season. After 165 matches (with one of those being for the Africa XI), Smith has scored 6 097 runs at an average of 39.84 with a strike rate of 82.76. The burly opening batsman has 43 fifties to go with his eight hundreds, and in Asia, where the current World Cup is being played, he averages 42.96. As a batsman, when Smith makes runs, South Africa’s chances of winning are immeasurably increased since the momentum he generates at the top of the order filters down into the rest of South Africa’s batting line-up, who with out going to far, are some of the most talented players in the world.
Smith is often seen at first slip chewing on gum in a manner that would horrify a dentist. In the Test arena, he started his career when the likes of Gary Kirsten and Allan Donald had ended or were about to end theirs. A late inclusion in the 2003 World Cup squad, Smith experienced his first bout of tournament envy, with Shaun Pollock’s glum face symbolising the way the country felt after another draw led to South Africa’s exit from the competition. In 2007, Smith was an established skipper and though his intentions against Australia in the semi-final were good, the aggressive approach Mickey Arthur and himself had backed to unsettle Australia backfired spectacularly, with the Australians having ended the game as a contest by the middle of South Africa’s innings. Smith was understandably disconsolate, but perhaps tasting such bitter defeat (rather than an anaemic draw) helped fashion the steeliness shown in that epic tour of down under a couple of seasons later (deciding to bare the brunt of the Australian media’s more vicious side on the previous tour, where South Africa lost 2-0, certainly helped in its own way).
Smith’s legacy will be the self-confidence and willingness to put everything on the line in the name of the Protea. His departure from the Shaun Pollock era, who in turn got his wings during the Cronje era, was a necessary break from the past that had to be achieved, and while many doubted Smith had the chops to make the side better when he first became captain, he has undoubtedly left the ODI side in a better state of mind than when he first had the (C) put next to his name. His force of character can be seen in the way some of the side’s newer players approach the game. Faf du Plessis, though still very much a newbie, isn’t as vulnerable to the vexing South African cricket brain as players who made their debut closer to 2000. Cricket at international level is all in the mind, and via Smith’s contribution, South Africa are in a far better place than they were eight years ago.
I’m glad he will continue in Tests, and allow the seed he has planted within the cerebral cortex of this country’s cricket ethos to grow. As the Tree of Smith springs to life, the fruit that it bears will have positive repercussions in the many seasons of international cricket to come.