Test cricket’s Man of the Year

2009-01-02 00:00

GRAEME Smith was right to praise the collective efforts of his team- mates in securing a first-ever series win on Australian soil, but as architect, cheerleader and principal batsman, the glory belongs to him. With his confident demeanour and powerful physical presence, Smith is, for the moment at least, the most formidable captain in world cricket.

The traditional Australian tactic of targeting the opposing captain fell on stony ground as the calm and determined South African has imposed himself on this series in a manner that fuelled the self-belief of his team.

The national cricket and rugby teams are blessed with leaders of rare ability. Both are in charge of a group of gifted players, and by their presence on the field, both have been able to instill in their men an aura of success that has been notably absent when they, too, have been absent.

The Springboks played below their potential under the leadership of Victor Matfield and the cricketers fell apart in England when Smith was forced to pull out of the one-day series that ended so ignominiously for his team.

It is in this context that Smith’s leadership and performance in Australia should be judged. As anyone who has suffered from tennis elbow will tell you, Smith is carrying a particularly debilitating injury. Yet in the two Tests he has played four innings of substance. It is little wonder that he has been able to extract the best from the rest of his team.

Smith and Smit are similar and common names, but there is nothing ordinary about the quality of their leadership. Smit is that rarest of animals — a born leader. Smith has arrived at the same place following a long apprenticeship that is rarely offered to cricket captains.

Turning back to the cricket itself, it is difficult to recall a Test team securing, in successive matches, two such improbable and comprehensive victories. In both matches, the Australians, having won the toss, got themselves into positions from which Test matches are almost invariably won.

In Perth they squandered several chances to bury South Africa, whereas in Melbourne it took an out-of-this-world rearguard batting action from the Proteas’ maligned tailenders that not only dug the team out of a dark hole, but ultimately put it into a position from which victory became a distinct possibility.

I suspect I was not alone last Sunday, as the cricket approached tea time, struggling both to shake off the remnants of dreams disturbed and to comprehend the reality. At best, one had been hoping for a 100-run deficit and the fall of three wickets. That we had lost just one wicket and scored nearly 200 runs in just under four hours was too wondrous to believe.

No one could have foreseen that the team’s least experienced batsman with a Test batting average of under 10 would put on 180 runs for the ninth wicket. Certainly Dale Steyn could have been out half-a-dozen times and should have been caught at least twice, but it was a remarkable partnership that broke the Aussie spirit. Indeed, it would have broken the spirit of most teams, let alone one whose fragility had already been exposed in Perth.

It is true that the loss of Brett Lee to injury crippled an Australian side reduced to three bowlers, but JP Duminy has propelled himself to stardom. Seldom can a Test rookie have displayed such composure in a crisis, but the fluidity and range of his stroke-making confirmed the long-held belief of those who have played with Duminy that he has been a star in waiting. For him, the wait is over.

It may be that he was kept on the sidelines longer than he might have wanted, but the wait has not done him harm. That he is ready for Test cricket can no longer be in doubt. It remains only to determine where he should bat in an order full of talent.

When Prince is fit again he must surely return in place of Neil McKenzie, who came within two inches of ending his Test career on a dismal note when Lee bowled him with a no-ball. It says much for McKenzie that he recovered to play a major role in the simple run chase that followed.

He is a substantial cricketer and does not deserve to end the year as he began it — out of the national team — but I am afraid that like many of the unemployed in 2009, he will be confronted with a “No vacancies” sign when the team returns for the summer series against the Aussies.

Mike Atherton, the snippy cricket correspondent of the Times, averred that the Proteas were “outrageously flattered by their series win in England”. He cannot deny that 2008 was the year of Graeme Smith and his team.

The big three of world cricket were confronted in their own lairs; only the preparation of a dodgy pitch in India prevented a clean sweep for the South Africans, who ended the year unbeaten in any series and victorious in all but one.

Test cricket’s man of the year is its top run-scorer and most successful captain — Graeme Smith.

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