Graeme Smith was definitively tough but unassuming, and ended his career as one of the most successful Test openers and captains.
Surrounded by legends, in an era of of record-breaking greats, his often ugly and unattractive style prevents him from being considered as a truly memorable batsman. He will, however, be both remembered and missed by the team he leaves behind.
He was able to lure unsuspecting bowlers into a trap of thinking he had vulnerabilities, but with 9,265 Test runs, 117 Tests caps (108 of which were as captain), his record is undisputedly one of resilience, determination and consistency, in spite of his many flaws.
Smith helped to redefine what is successful; because he had consistent success in a completely different way to others. He did it on his own terms, and proved that the coaching manual is not the only recipe for triumph.
To celebrate this giant of Test cricket, here are five reasons why South Africa will miss the nation’s greatest ever captain.
1. He was a tough nut
To play from such a young age of 21, is a tough challenge at any high standard of sport. To be invested with opening the batting at that age, and captaincy of a volatile and highly scrutinised team, seems unreasonably difficult.
Smith did it, and did it well. He took on the challenge and was entrusted with it for his entire career for the Proteas.
South Africa may have a captain to replace him. They may be able to fill an opener slot. But they will never replace his Steve Waugh like attitude. To get Smith out you had to work him out. Even if you hit him or exposed technical flaws, if he was still there, he would contiune. It wasn’t always pretty, but mighty effective.
Graeme Smith had to fight the media, his own team mates occasionally, his mind, his technique but most importantly other teams, and did so admirably on all fronts.
With bat in hand, his bottom handed grip often caused an unsuspecting delivery outside his off stump to be planted with a closed bat face to unintended parts of the field. In reality however, he was the ultimate example of ugly runs being fighting runs, finishing with an average of nearly 50 over 117 Tests. He was a fighter. He battled when elegence and technique was not the answer.
To celebrate his career, here is Graeme Smith refusing to give up, coming out to bat with a broken hand:
2. His consistency
Few batsman in Test history are capable of unerring consistency across innings, batting first or second, home or away, or over a long period long time.
Smith’s frail-looking technique had a major benefit, in the sense that because he battled himself, he was thinking less about the conditions or the bowler. He watched the ball and applied concentration to the game situation, with full concentration on task.
The application he offered to innings of all kinds meant that he averaged over 50 in the first and last innings of Tests, and never scored a hundred in a losing cause. Whatever the chaos and drama around him, Smith was the one batsman that would be more concerned about staying in than performing the perfect cover drive.
There is a strong correlation between Smith not performing and South Africa failing as a team, which outlines his importance, but also how his consistency contributed to South African consistency. As a losing player, he averaged 25.58, compared to 61.34 as a victorious player and 51. 34 as a player in drawn games.
One could almost say that he is a microcosm of South African success.
To showcase his consistency, here is a clip of Graeme Smith accumulating 259 against just a week after scoring 277. His sheer appetite for runs was staggering. )
3. He was the modern leader of South African cricket
South Africa under Graham Smith not just reintegrated itself into the rhythm of international cricket, but re-established its rich legacy and quality. He took the captaincy as a young man, and nurtured his side into one of the best sides in the world.
With the exception of Shaun Pollock who played under Hansie Cronje to, the modern greats; Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini flourished under the fantastic man management of Smith. Truly great partnerships were concreted; with the likes of Jacques Kallis as the rock in the middle, who played 98 Tests under Smith, scoring 33 of his 45 centuries. Ab de Villiers grew into the perfect decoy to the more mature batsmen, such as himself, Hashim Amla and Kallis.
He built a well rounded and compact team, and yes; it had flaws. But so did Smith. Some of the flaws Smith had to manage is that unlike India who had Anil Kumble for so long, and Australia who of course had Shane Warne, Smith never had a genuinely world class spin bowler. He had to learn to handle a team that didn’t always have the neccesary resources. Like his own batting, he got on with it, and managed it to the best of his abiltiy.
Smith represented a generation of striving for change, but striving to achieve the maximum with the ability at hand. Encapsulating this mentality; here is a clip of South Africa dismissing Australia for just 47 after being themselves dismissed for a miserly 96. Whatever they can do, we can do better.
4. Smith determined his, and his team’s legacy
When he arrived on the scene, people thought he would never last. He was too technically flawed. He couldn’t sweep or play through the offside. He was far too young to understand the subtleties and nuances of Test captaincy.
When he, as the captain, was too young and ‘couldn’t fill the boots of Shaun Pollock’ according to so many, he took charge of his fortune.
He maintained the captaincy for over a decade, steadily growing into his role and finding his comfort zone. Even with retirement, he was not perfect, but nobody pushed him out. At 33, he could easily have continued for at least another year.
But he didn’t. In terms of modern captaincy, he has the most caps as a skipper EVER in Tests, with 109 games, and has a win percentage of 48.62, which is very respectable considering some of the key issues that had to be dealt with, such as a lack of spinner and for a long time a lack of competency against quality spin.
The fact is, that like his batting, his captaincy was a microcosm for South Africa’s attitude towards playing. They didn’t have a Shane Warne or a Sachin Tendulkar. They had their flaws, but they dealt with them, in the same way that Smith worked through a method of achieving something, even with his strange and unorthodox technique.
Here is Smith giving his final press conference as to why he retired; outlining the importance of hard work and resilience over sheer skill and ability.
5. He liked making England suffer
The only thing worse than seeing England lose for the unsuspecting neutral, is seeing England fans gloat. Graeme Smith dedicated a career to ensuring misery for England fans in Test cricket, with a quite staggering individual record.
In 2003, he scored 277 and 259 in the space of a week, subjugating English bowling to South Africa’s mighty hammer.
He scored two centuries against England in 2008, two in 2010, and incase England were not sick of him, he snuck in a century against England on his hundredth Test, which was the final Test of the series’ and crowned his side as number one in the world. Fitting.
Smith loved scoring runs against England. He put an often arrogant England side in their place, humbling them with inside edges to fine leg, and cover drives that ended up through mid wicket. He frustrated everyone because he always gave an impression of vulnerability, yet more often than not, pulled through with great success.
To enjoy Smith’s resilience against England, here is his magnificent 183 against England in 2010 at Cape Town.