A legend steps into history

2013-02-01 00:00

LOVE him or hate him, Graeme Smith is a cricket legend — no doubt about it — not just in South Africa, but throughout the cricketing world.

Statistics don’t lie, and today, when Smith steps out alone at the Wanderers, in the first Test against Pakistan, as the first player to captain his national side in 100 Tests, South Africans can and should feel proud.

It’s also his 32nd birthday, 10 years on from when he took charge of the Proteas as a brash 22-year-old, seen by many as too young for such a responsibility and branded by some as the wrong man for such an important job.

It has been an up and down journey, one of good and bad days, but as Smith takes the field today, there must be plenty of people eating their words, those who have continually called for his head when the national team has failed, let alone when his form has dipped.

His record, dedication, fighting spirit and “no surrender” leadership have seen him take the Proteas to the top of the ICC Test rankings, their current position, wrestling the mace from England in a 2-0 series win last year on English soil.

He has matured immensely as a leader and since beating England and Australia in their own back yards, has returned to his fields of conquest, “Graeme the Great”, wielding his bat and marshalling his troops as they outplay and crush all resistance.

South African Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula paid homage to Smith’s standing as an icon of South African sport, saying: “Graeme Smith’s exceptional display of talent, sense of duty and patriotism place him in a league of his own.

“He is an individual who gave it his all and who inspired even me to become better.”

Team-mates have been unanimous in standing by their captain through good and bad, none more so than senior statesman Jacques Kallis, who said: “To achieve what he has achieved, I don’t think will be achieved very soon again, if ever.”

Smith acknowledged he was a little naïve when he first took charge of the South Africa team.

“Back then I thought captaining was just an on-field thing, making some decisions and showing some leadership.

“Little did I know about what happened behind the scenes, the selection issues and the politics.

“Wherever I went early on, teams were taking me on, the media were taking me on, and that was where I developed this hardness, this arrogance. It was my way of protecting myself and showing I can handle whatever is thrown my way.

“I came across in probably a very strong and not a very well-liked way.”

But there’s no need for forgiveness, even from his most ardent critics.

Smith has done more than enough for redemption, and like it or not, his place in cricket’s highest echelons is secure, his name alongside the best to have graced the game.

Today is officially “Biff Day” at the Wanderers, paying homage to a great leader and man.

Even his nickname gives an indication of his approach to the game.

Smith paid tribute to his school, King Edward, where he learnt his cricket, and former South African and Gauteng batsman Jimmy Cook, who had had him improve his batting technique. He also has a good relationship with former New Zealand skipper Stephen Fleming, who also took over leadership at a young age.

He rates Australian Ricky Ponting as the most competitive player he has come up against and former England skipper Michael Vaughan as a “smart” captain.

As for the start of the Test today, Smith said he would be surprised if he took to the bullring with an all-out pace attack. He expected either Imran Tahir or Robin Petersen to get the nod on “a wicket with lots of grass and quite green”.

He said he would have complete confidence in whoever was selected.

Well done, Biff. Happy birthday and thanks for the great memories. Long may it continue.

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