A journey well taken

2014-03-05 00:00

A LITTLE over two months ago, South African cricket bade farewell to Jacques Kallis, a cricketer described by former Indian batsman Ravi Shastri as “the best of his generation”.

It was a blow for the Proteas and will be for some time as we attempt to fill the void, but for many, there was consolation that some of the more senior heads of the team were still intact, none more so than Gra­eme Smith.

As leader of the Test team, he had built a grand unit, the Rolls Royce of world cricket, as he surveyed the international cricket domain from his perch atop the ICC Test rankings, the Proteas having a firm grip on the treasured mace having dethroned England in 2012.

He may not have been performing of late with the bat, but there was no denying his leadership qualities.

He was big, brash, in your face, proud and never took a step backwards. It was thanks to him we could measure up to the Australian, English and Indian teams, beating them at home and away.

And then it all stopped. Suddenly. As the sun dipped over Newlands at the end of the third day in the third and deciding Test against Michael Clarke’s Australians, Smith decided enough was enough and surprised the cricket world with his retirement from cricket.

Two killer blows in as many months. We all know it has to happen sometime in sport, especially one as demanding as cricket, that a great, a crowd favourite, slings his jersey over his shoulder one last time, packs his “coffin” (cricket bag) never to return to the dressing room … but it’s hard to imagine.

Then it happens. That moment arrives and all that’s left is memories, moments, photographs, stories, video footage … perhaps an in-depth book at a later stage, but the reality is that it’s over.

Smith has been a huge, imposing figure in South African and world cricket. Statistics do not lie and his compare with the greats, of that there is no doubt. He has had to lead a Protea side always under endless scrutiny from the South African public, a side expected to win at all costs, on all stages.

When that has not transpired, his name was always first out the hat to axe from the team. How many braais and bar counters have been the settings for such conversation, talk inspired more by drink than by logic.

Taking over the team as a young 22-year-old, Smith’s first task was to convince himself and the South African public that he had what it took to do the job.

From the word go, sceptics were already slating him and the selectors to the tune of not knowing what they were doing and giving the reins to a still wet behind the ears youngster.

He had only played eight Tests and the challenge was immense. More than 9 000 Test runs later, at an average just under 50, with 27 centuries, including five doubles, surely Smith has done enough to silence his critics.

People tend to live for the present, the now moment, and are quick to knock a man down when his current situation is most vulnerable.

Cricket is a game that gives players the opportunity to show their character, to rise from the ashes and confound their critics.

Take a journey through the record books and see how often Smith did just that.

He must have been good, otherwise he would never have played 117 Tests or been the only captain in cricket history — yes, the only one — to captain his country in more than 100 of those.

That alone will secure his place in the hallowed halls of cricketing greatness and he produced his finest moments when the chips were down, a clear indication of his character.

He was proud of what he represented, proud of who he played with and he defended that mantle, holding it close to his heart.

Twice he went to England and Australia, arriving like a viking on their shores, wielding his bat like a weapon of destruction, urging his troops to plunder all in their path.

This they did and he was part of it. Besides his countless fourth-innings heroics, where he has the best average in Test cricket, his 154* at Edgbaston in 2008 to seal a series win, rescuing his side from 93-4 in pursuit of 283, secures his place in cricketing greatness, still spoken of by observers as one of the best innings ever seen and ranked by Smith as his greatest moment.

Even the Aussies, after a shaky start early in his Test career when he fell prey to their sledging and on-field antics, had to stand back and admire a man of courage and character when he strode out at Sydney in 2009 to try and save the Third Test, with the series already won.

As his career progressed, Smith was recognised as a man of pride and loyalty, always ready to defend what he stood for.

Like any cricketer, he had his ups and downs, but he always rose from the canvas, always gave his best for what he stood for.

He did not go out in glory, battling in his last three Tests against the Aussies, but he has left an indelible mark on the world of cricket and a leadership hole that will be hard to fill.

Thanks for the moments and the memories, Biff. It was worth every ounce defending you and stating your cause around the braai when the backstabbers came out.

Now I can haul out the stats and history books and sing your praises as one of South Africa’s best.

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