Biff at his combative best

2013-02-02 00:00

MUCH has been made this week of Graeme Smith’s hundredth Test match as a captain.

One of these captaincies was for a Rest of the World XI in those days when Australia were strong enough to take on the combined might of everyone else. Smith’s hundredth match as captain of the South African team is a simple inevitability and will be followed within days with, presumably, further celebrations.

It is remarkable that for over 10 years no one has emerged to threaten his lengthy tenure in the job. There was a brief moment when Neil McKenzie was thought to be the best captain in South African cricket and some critics pondered his name as a possible replacement for Smith.

McKenzie, however, was unable, during his first stint in the team, to command a regular place in the side, although he ultimately played in 58 Test matches, most of which were under the captaincy of Smith. The story that the young Smith recognised McKenzie as a threat and manoeuvered him off the team until he himself felt more secure has lingered in cricket’s folklore without ever gaining traction.

Even now, as Smith approaches another milestone in his remarkable career, the name of his putative successor is not at all certain.

AB de Villiers is the man in the frame, but, increasingly, doubt is growing about his ability to fill a leadership role with success.

So while his form with the bat lasts and there is little indication that it will not, Smith is certain to carry on as captain for some time to come. It is conceivable that he could do a fourth tour to England in 2017, which could see him do over 150 Test matches as captain of the national team.

That might be something of a stretch for a man with a growing family, but his place in the history of cricket is already assured.

He is arguably one of the most dominant characters the game has seen. He may have been unknown in England when he first took a team there in 2003, but they sure as hell know of him now.

Nasser Hussein, who attempted to ridicule him with his unwise and infamous “Graeme who?” remark, found out very quickly who he was, and was the first of three English captains seen off the premises by the formidable Smith.

One of the features of Smith’s captaincy that has been hugely successful is the way he has faced up to and relished the many challenges of his office.

No cricket captain has ever been confronted with as many different pitfalls both on and off the field. It all started when he was asked to take the job from an unwillingly sacked captain who remained in the team and has continued more or less without respite ever since.

Smith has calmly navigated the political waters without striking ground. In 2005, he was presented with a team for the first Test match against England that contained four debutants and was without Mark Boucher, his warrior in chief.

Unsurprisingly, that match was lost, but three of those recruits ultimately thrived within the culture of Smith’s team just as those from the previously disadvantaged communities have also done.

Team managers, chairpersons of selectors, board presidents have come and been forgotten without disturbing Smith’s equilibrium, which is precisely as it ought to be. For 10 years he has been the most important man in SA cricket.

Later in that 2005 series, he was concussed in a before play incident during the fourth Test match at the Wanderers and was advised not to take any further part in the game. Notwithstanding that warning, he went out to bat in the second innings at a time when his team was in danger of defeat. He batted brilliantly and all but steered his team to safety, but finally ran out of partners.

These heroics were reprised a couple of years later when he went out to bat with a badly broken hand at Sydney in what proved to be another vain attempt to save his team. When Smith is finally done, he will be remembered as much for these moments of physical bravery as he will be for his many moments of success.

The bald statistics of his Test career are impressive enough. Awkward to watch, but never dull, he has made over 8 000 runs at an average of fifty with 26 centuries. He has also pouched a bucket-load of catches, mostly at first slip. There is clearly more of everything to come.

When he is finally finished with all the travelling, the practising, the responsibilities, the run making and the catching, it will be time for us to reflect then on a job well done and assess his standing among all the giants of the game. He will not be found wanting.

In the meantime there is a Test series against Pakistan to be played and won. It has started at the Wanderers, the home ground of the Highveld Lions, who once saw fit not to recognise the potential of a KES schoolboy and allowed the young Smith to slip through their fingers to play his cricket elsewhere.

After the pathetic efforts of New Zealand to provide some opposition to the world number one team, the Pakistanis will be a different proposition. After several years in the doldrums, Pakistan’s cricket appears to be on the move. Their bowling attack is strong and varied, their batting is steadily gaining confidence and, more importantly, perhaps, they appear determined to eliminate the off-the-field nonsense that has so often disrupted their cricket. If they are to trouble Smith’s team, however, their catching will have to improve.

Whatever the Pakistanis do on the field, they will find the South African captain at his combative best. We should all hope that he has a successful match and that he is ready to repeat the dose in the next Test, his hundredth as captain of his country.

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