1 February 2013
When Graeme Smith walks out onto the Wanderers pitch to take on Pakistan in Johannesburg on Friday, the day of his 32nd birthday, he will become the first man in cricket history to serve as captain in 100 tests. One of those was as captain of the World XI against Australia in 2005. His 100th test in charge of South Africa will take place on 14 February.
Having taken on the job at the young age of 22, Smith has gone through some ups and downs, but he is now one of the most respected leaders in the game.
His test career began way back in March 2002 at Newlands. Probably the best bit of trivia about Smith’s contribution to that match, the second test against Australia, which the Aussies won by four wickets, was not his 68 in the second innings – he began his test career with three in the first innings – but the fact that he didn’t open the innings. He batted at number three.
The batting was opened by Herschelle Gibbs and one Gary Kirsten, now the coach of the Proteas. Kirsten outscored Smith in that game, making seven and 87, but Smith has gone on to a longer career and passed Kirsten, once South Africa’s all-time leader in test runs, having reached 8 624 by the time of his 100th test as captain.
Along the way, Smith eclipsed Kirsten and Darryl Cullinan, who both scored 275 in a test innings, by making 277 in the first test against England at Edgbaston in 2003 to become the highest South African run scorer in a test match. Remarkably, a week later, he made 259 in the second test at Lords.
“When he came into the team I saw that he had leadership potential,” Kirsten said in a statement this week. “He relished the idea of being captain of South Africa, when a lot of people didn’t because of the burden the job comes with.
‘I felt he had lot to offer’
“I played 14 Tests under him and even though he was young, I felt he had a lot to offer, but that was obviously going to take time, which is sometimes the case with leadership,” Kirsten said.
“For me, as a former opening batsman, his role has been underpinned by his success as a batsman, to average close to fifty and to score 26 Test hundreds is an unbelievable achievement. We often forget the role he plays with the bat up front.”
Smith’s batting achievements include a world record first wicket opening partnership with Neil McKenzie, who like Smith attended King Edward VII School in Johannesburg. Together they put on 415 against Bangladesh at Chittagong in early 2008. They finished day one on 405 runs, which is the most a pair has put in a single day of test cricket without losing a wicket.
Number one in the world
In the past five years, Smith has led South Africa to some of the country’s most important series victories, including twice winning Down Under, when the Proteas had never previously achieved a series victory, and twice winning series in England. That run of success has led to South Africa becoming the number one test playing team in the world.
Smith has also proved to be at his best when the chips are down in the fourth innings. At Edgbaston in 2008, he scored a magnificent 154 not out on a very difficult pitch, arguably his most impressive innings, to guide the Proteas to a five-wicket victory. He rightly received high praise for that effort, but there was even higher praise to come for an innings of only three in a loss to Australia in January 2009.
South Africa were already 2-0 up in their three-match series Down Under, the series victory sealed, when the Proteas found themselves in trouble. They were way behind in their run chase and the Aussies were deeply into the Proteas’ batting line-up. Overs, however, were also running out for the Australians.
Smith was not expected to bat after he retired injured on 30 in the first innings with a broken hand. Compounding this was a case of tennis elbow in his right arm. An injection had numbed it, but batting would be a painful experience. He wouldn’t bat again, or so people thought.
When the Proteas lost their ninth wicket, some thought the match was over. Smith, though, had other ideas and came out to try and save the game. The Australian fans rose to their feet as one, recognising the fighting qualities they hold so dear in another.
The South African skipper battled manfully, leaving the ball when he could, but enduring great pain whenever he was forced to play it. His innings lasted only 17 balls before he was bowled by Mitchell Johnson and the match lost, but his decision to bat raised the level of respect of the opposition immeasurably. ESPN Cricinfo, the Internet’s leading cricket website, wrote an article about Smith, headlining it “The bravest man in world cricket”.
Tied to Smith’s success was the Proteas’ improvement as a test team; in 2008/09 they won in both England and Australia. When they did it for an unprecedented second time in 2012, they became the undisputed number one test team in the world. It was generally agreed that Smith’s captaincy and his contributions with the bat had a lot to do with it.
Proteas’ team manager Dr Mohammed Moosajee toured Bangladesh in 2003, which was Smith’s first tour as captain. “I was travelling with the team as the doctor at that stage,” Moosajee recalled, “and I don’t think he stopped talking for the entire trip there.
“He has grown into one of the most astute leaders that this country will ever witness, but for me, the most impressive element about Graeme is the humbleness and humility with which he has gone about his work, he is an great example for everyone in the team.”
Talent and sense of duty
South Africa’s Minister of Sport and Recreation Fikile Mbalula spoke at a press conference on Thursday ahead of the first test against Pakistan. He praised Smith for his “courage”, saying: “It’s a great day and special occasion for Graeme, the captain of our national side, for the exceptional display of talent and sense of duty [he has shown throughout his career].
“His patriotism is in a league of its own. As young as he is, he has come of age to be what he is today.
“We wish him good luck for future endeavours and for everything that he has achieved. May it inspire every generation of young South Africans to do better,” Mbalula said.
“South Africans are proud of what he has achieved. He will remember the lows and ups during his career, but he never gave up, I hope that will inspire every sports loving person in the country.”
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