Newsmaker – Graeme Smith's last swagger

2014-03-09 14:00

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The brash young man who matured into SA’s cricket test captain talks about the life journeys he took in the game.

On the eve of the third test against Australia, Graeme Smith walked back from the nets at Newlands by himself.

Some of his team-mates were still on the field and ground staff were putting the finishing touches to the pitch.

Dwarfed by the empty stands, Smith lost his customary swagger.

He looked like a man who had just lost his wicket and paused, helmet still neatly on his head, to look around the stadium where he had first faced Australia as a Proteas player in 2002.

It was time, he knew, to move on.

“In those moments, I knew I was ready to leave the game but you fight them because you will be playing a test match and you need to perform.”

We are talking at Cape Town’s Vineyard Hotel. Smith, in jeans and a T-shirt, looks relaxed.

“At that point, my heart and mind was in that space where I wanted to retire, but your mind needs to get ready for the challenge that lies ahead. Just stopping and taking in those moments was a special time for me because the ground had been so special for me.”

In the pre-match press conference, Cape Times cricket writer Zaahier Adams asked Smith how many Newlands tests he thought he had left in his battered 33-year-old body.

Normally forthright and frank, Smith looked sucker-punched by the question.

But he has had 12 years of dealing with journalists, so he batted the question away with ease. He says he felt hollow inside as he answered.

“I have become media savvy over the years and learnt to say what people wanted to hear.

When I was talking to the media, I felt I was lying about my feelings.

“By chance, bowling coach Allan Donald asked me on the first morning about my future plans regarding my career and how I was feeling?–?I did not give him an honest response. Deep down, when I answered those questions I certainly had in my mind that the time was close. I wish I had done it before the test.”

Instead, he announced his retirement on Monday, the third day of the match which the Proteas ultimately lost.

The Johannesburg-born Smith, whose love for cricket took root at King Edward VII School in Houghton, grew from a brash, young test captain with a chip on his shoulder to a mature, self-contained adult who blossomed in the public eye.

He captained the Proteas in a world record 107 test matches and scored 27 hundreds.

Every time he hit a century, South Africa went on to win.

“When I started playing, all I used to hear was that ‘this player needs to change his technique’ and ‘this man needs to change his batting grip’. I don’t think there was a commentator or a journalist in the first two years of my career who did not make reference to my batting style and that I was going to have to change a lot in my career,” he says.

“When I look back with the amount of runs I have scored and the cricket I have played, there is a massive life lesson. I had a dream and I was determined. I had assets that other batsmen did not have – whether it was the determination, the focus or the iron will to succeed. I found a way and that is the most rewarding thing to look back on.”

Captaining any sport in South Africa comes with a hefty dose of politics.

Smith has weathered a fair few storms, like changes of administration and having to guide the team through the Gerald Majola bonus scandal between 2009 and 2012, which incidentally was the test team’s purple patch.

There was also the small matter of having to integrate South Africa’s diverse races and cultures within the team, something Smith says he’s proud to count among his successes.

“I never saw players as mere commodities and my job was to harness their abilities and get the best out of them. When I took over, there was a lot of stress in terms of equal representation of the country and the pressures associated with that. My role was to identify players and those who were getting opportunities could handle their individual pressures.

“If I had the opportunity, I would have loved more representation but I am extremely proud to have seen guys like Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Makhaya Ntini blossom in the way they did. These were pipe dreams when I started.

“People will always want more but they also need to stop and take stock of what has been created. It has been amazing to be part of this journey.”

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