Enter the new Graeme Smith

2011-10-13 00:00

Cape Town — Call it the first day of the rest of his cricketing life in limited-overs terms … all eyes will be on Graeme Smith’s novel rank-and-file status as he turns out for South Africa in the opening Twenty20 international against Australia at Newlands today.

It will certainly be strange, to put it mildly, to see the 30-year-old “Biff” not leading the Proteas out, and in his place the soft-spoken and serene Hashim Amla doing the job at one-day level until AB de Villiers’s return to fitness.

After all, the hefty, up-and-at-‘em character who loves the whiff of gunsmoke has been national leader in all but a handful of his 294 appearances for his country across the three major formats since his baptism in the international arena around nine years ago.

Smith will debut as a post-captaincy SA player, if you like, at the same venue where he earned his first Test cap, and against the same foes, back in March 2002.

The Australians were truly on top of the cricketing world then and won that match, although Smith, who is rarely employed at No. 3, got a second-innings 68 which hinted at his rich potential.

Will relief from the cares of leading the national side actually aid Smith’s cause as a batsman, especially at one-day level where his occupancy of a spot is less assured than in the five-day format he still heads up for South Africa?

We are about to find out, although it would be a tad cruel to judge him prematurely on his showing in a weakened, experimental-looking Proteas XI in an early-season, two-match T20 series which really ought to be a bit of a lottery.

Deeper analysis of his suitability to stay in the one-day picture, perhaps, is best reserved for the ODI part of the infuriatingly whistle-stop Aussie tour.

Being freed of the captaincy burden may, on initial analysis, seem like a near-guaranteed recipe for a personal revival in run terms for Smith.

But sometimes it is not quite so straightforward: some players actually thrive on the responsibility of leadership, the adrenalin from that department translating into bulldog personal determination at the crease.

It is something the big left-hander is pretty famous for, of course, particularly beneath a Test helmet or cap.

Even a few years ago new Proteas coach Gary Kirsten admitted he found it hard to contemplate his former team-mate as anything but pilot of the proverbial plane.

“It’s just what Graeme does,” I remember him saying admiringly then.

Amla was asked just how unorthodox a phenomenon it would be to lead South Africa before what is expected to be a capacity crowd today with Smith running out somewhere behind him if they field first. He replied, “I think it is a fantastic dynamic to have.

“Graeme is such an incredibly experienced guy on the field and the way that he has conducted himself now that he is not captain has been a huge benefit to everyone [in the team].”

Will there be some whispers between them during the game?

“I think most definitely. I’m sure I’ll be asking him for his thoughts as the game takes shape,” said Amla.

“We’ve also got a guy in the team like Johan Botha who is a highly successful captain in his own right. Every captain will have people he bounces ideas off and it will probably be the same here.”

The South African batting order — and the team itself — are unclear at this stage, but it seems there may be plans afoot for Smith to open the innings with rookie Richard Levi, and Amla offering stability at “first drop”.

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