Neil Johnson pays tribute to Graeme Smith

2008-05-14 00:00

He is the cricketer most South African cricket spectators love to hate. His arrogant, gum-chewing swagger does little to endear him to fellow players either. If that wasn’t enough, he also refers to the South African team as “my boys” and sprouts cricketing clichés ad nauseum along with some lacklustre excuses when his team loses.

It’s easy to find fault with Graeme Smith as a captain and as a person but, unquestionably, he remains a highly competent cricketer. He is probably the only cricketer in the South African team who has the leadership skills necessary to captain at the highest level. Neil Mackenzie could do the job, but he has just rejoined the Proteas and Hashim Alma has a way to go to cement his place in the team.

Once Shaun Pollock was ruled out as captain, Smith was really the only possibility for the selectors. A very young, but undeniably confident Smith was thrust into the captaincy of one of the leading cricketing nations with barely a Test match under his belt.

The Australians were quick to pick up on his demeanour and nicknamed him “vet” (as in veteran) as he portrayed himself as a seasoned cricketer when in fact he was still wet behind the ears. Smith has never been afraid of a challenge, whether it comes from the opposition, the media or the selectors, and this has resulted in him making enemies in the process.

What he has taken on, and what he has actually achieved, considering his age, is quite remarkable.

Ricky Ponting and other recent Australian captains have been fortunate to learn their trade from some of the greatest cricketing captains — the likes of Alan Border, Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor.

Smith, who was not even captain of his franchise at the time of his appointment, did not have that luxury. He was thrust into the frontline and had to learn the job quickly. He could have refused the captaincy and opted to concentrate instead on his own career as a number of other players, like Gary Kirsten, have done. Kirsten turned down the offer of captaincy and went on to have a memorable career for South Africa.

But I admire Smith and what he has achieved. Captaining South Africa is without doubt one of the toughest jobs in world cricket, with selection issues and a passionate cricket-watching public to please only two aspects of his job description. Selectors in most countries are made up of ex-international or first-class cricketers who understand the game of cricket and select players on merit. South Africa’s selection philosophy is far more complicated, with quotas and political agendas thrown into the mix .

You could say that Smith has been tossed in the deep-end but, in truth, he wanted the job and the challenge.

Still, spare a thought for him as he flies around the country attending various meetings, fighting various battles, always in the limelight while trying to keep in form and score runs for his country. He seems to have a unique ability to switch on and off, which has stood him in good stead. Each time he’s not in the runs, commentators and the press slate his technique as the reason, and yet if you speak to most bowlers in world cricket they will agree that Smith and Matthew Hayden are two of the most intimidating batsmen to bowl to.

“Biff” as his nickname suggests, has an enormous presence at the crease and there is no doubt that his swagger means business. His record in Test cricket and the shorter version of the game is impressive. He has, in my opinion, the ugliest grip in world cricket with his bat often coming down at the wrong angle. Most opponents will, however, concede that getting him out early is crucial, as he can occupy the crease for long periods and he scores runs quickly.

Bowlers, seeing a tall, strongly-built batsman, often try to bowl short at him to push him back before pitching it up outside off stump. But Smith pulls and hooks as well as anyone, so by the time you do pitch it up to him he is on his way. He also gets away with hitting through square leg from straight deliveries, as he has excellent balance — his great strength — with his size 14 boots.

Smith moves exceptionally well for a big guy and is deceptively quick across the ground, with few players in the squad able to match him in a sprint.

He is without a doubt one of the toughest cricketers around and he has a thick skin. Which is just as well because he is not everyone’s favourite. Still, you have to admire his courage, determination and commitment in taking on two of international cricket’s most challenging jobs — opening the batting and captaining South Africa.

Neil Johnson, former Natal, WP and Zimbabwe all-rounder, lives in Pietermaritzburg.

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