During Australia’s World T20 campaign in 2012, George Bailey dined in the crab restaurant owned by Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. More than other slightly overpriced crab restaurants, this is a place of cricket. They don’t hide who the owners are, and there are pictures of other cricketers around as well. The waiters also love cricket. They were very excited, as many famous current players and legendary ex-players had been in. They were keen on meeting more. The man who waited on George Bailey was a massive Cameron White fan. He spoke of how White used to be the Australian T20 captain. When asked who the current Australian captain was, he didn’t know.
Bailey just sat there uncomfortably. With a slight smile.
The first ball of George Bailey’s Test career at the Gabba was eased through mid-on. It was from Stuart Broad. There are far worse ways of starting your career than with an on-drive for three. Interestingly, it was an empty mid-on. From the start it seemed that England didn’t rate him.
After that, every ball Bailey faced in that innings would be from James Anderson. He missed a bouncer, edged a length ball that didn’t carry, and played and missed at an outswinger. During all of this, Jimmy spoke to Bailey. His famous sledging style: through his fingers. Bailey spoke back, and smiled.
Until he nicked off to Cook at slip. His feet set in stone. His hands looking for the ball, and his edge completing the wicket. He had made 3 and was Anderson’s first wicket of the Ashes.
Bailey made an impact almost immediately in domestic cricket. Not completely as a batsman, but for his smile. He smiles a lot. There was an ad one year promoting the one-day tournament and in it was Mick Lewis, the grizzled Victorian quick, saying how much he hated George Bailey smiling. But despite the smile, and the obvious talent, Bailey never really pushed for higher honours.
If you saw him bat, it was strange. With no real follow-through, he could smoke the ball to the fence. Pace and spin didn’t seem a problem. He could play on rough wickets. What he couldn’t do was produce the sort of season that you need to get picked. Almost all Australian cricketers do it. A 1000-run season that makes everyone shout your name.
Bailey never went past 778, which he made in his second season.
In 50-overs cricket he was always pretty good, but never “lock up your daughters this guy is burning your world down” good. In T20 he was the same. He played for Scotland when they were in the English domestic cricket set-up. But it was only in 50-over games, and he didn’t do enough to make a stir.
He also played in the IPL, for the best team, Chennai Super Kings. Many Australian players had made good reputations doing good things in the IPL. Bailey was there for four seasons. In that time Super Kings won two IPLs and were runners-up once. He played four games. His top score was 30.
There were no editorials written demanding his inclusion. He wasn’t signing multi-million dollar deals. He just played a bit of cricket, mostly at home, and occasionally abroad.
After Mitchell Johnson’s first innings at the Gabba, batting got easier. And Bailey had only one over from Anderson. Australia were well in front, Anderson was soon taken out of the attack, and instead Bailey faced Joe Root, Chris Tremlett and an out-of-sorts Graeme Swann.
Bailey reacted to this like a good team man. He smashed Root and Swann for sixes. He had not yet hit a four in Tests, but he did have two more sixes than Jonathan Trott. He was keen to show how much he had listened to instructions to attack the spinners, and that he could forget about putting a price on his wicket and just get Australia the runs they needed to declare. It was not always smooth but it was a positive sign.
That was until he looked like a badly programmed robot, playing up a line that Swann had not bowled. He was out for 34.
In Ed Cowan’s book, In the Firing Line (part diary, part bromance epic with Bailey), he wrote about a conversation that he and George had about the future after cricket. Both guys had got to around 30, felt a way away from playing for their country, and now had to think about the worst thing many professional cricketers fear – getting a real job.
There is good money in playing first-class cricket into your 30s, but you have to want it. You have to be prepared to get up early, train harder than the kids, prepare like a pro, knowing that your ultimate dream is gone. There are some players who play on without all this, but they are the obscenely talented. Bailey is good but not obscenely talented. A drop off in his work ethic could have meant he was no longer automatically picked, and even a career cashing in at the lower level may not have been available to him.
So when he chose to keep playing, it was because a part of him still believed. He was willing to keep working hard. He had won domestic titles. He had chased his dream professionally for over a decade, but when you are only one lucky phone call from playing for your country, it’s a big call to become a schoolteacher or batting coach.
Neither of Bailey’s Gabba innings made anywhere near the impact that his stoush with Anderson did. England had been placed inside a brass bull, the fire had been lit beneath it, and all that was left was the last screams as they roasted to death.
Australia pushed for the last wicket, but Anderson wasn’t quite cooked. Just before the 80th over started – one where he faced up to Johnson from around the wicket in the “Imma gonna kill you” style – he was already on edge. While Johnson warmed up, it was clear that Anderson and Bailey were chatting, and that Anderson wasn’t kidding around. He walked over to Bailey, standing tall above him, and nothing he said seemed like a John Keats poem. Politeness wasn’t in evidence. Neither man even seemed to let the other finish a sentence.
Bailey smiled, Anderson scowled, the umpires walked in hurriedly, they used the international sign for calm down, and then everyone went back to their marks. Michael Clarke chatted within the stump mics’ hearing range.
“Face up”, said an aggressive Clarke.
“I’m quite happy to,” said a passive-aggressive Anderson.
“Get ready for a broken f****** arm,” said Clarke walking backwards knowing that one of the world’s most dangerous bowlers was on his side.
George Bailey continued to smile. Anderson survived seven more balls.
If George Bailey wasn’t a good captain, he probably would have been even less known. Bailey had inherited a decent side from Dan (son of Rod, not Geoff) Marsh. But he made it even better. Partly through building a team ethic, partly by smart recruiting. George was well known and well liked within Australian cricket. Anyone he thought could be good for his team turned up. Ed Cowan, Jackson Bird and Mark Cosgrove turned up. Armed with these three, two good allrounders, and a bunch of other quality bowlers, he built an empire on green tracks that he and the other batsmen tried to survive on.
They made six finals under Bailey. They won three. For a state with no real record of prolonged success, and about 35 residents, it was a brilliant effort. And when Australian cricket changed under the reign of John Inverarity, George Bailey was their sort of man.
He knew about things other than cricket. He could bring people together. He was calm. He was cool. He was worldly. He was a winner. And he was bright. Then he was Australia’s first-ever captain who had not played for Australia before.
Even though it was the least important captaincy position, it painted a target on his back.
The score was 174 for 4 when Bailey appeared in Adelaide. He was dropped. He brought up his first Test fifty with a six off Broad. And continued to hit sixes.
When he came in, Australia were very nearly in danger of throwing away a huge advantage on a flat track, with their in-form captain at the other end. Bailey batted like a batsman without a care in the world. When England bowled a bad ball, he went after it. When they didn’t, he just handled them fine. Bailey outscored his captain.
The ball made a good noise off his bat when he smacked it. He looked, for the first time, in complete control. He came down to the spinners on the odd occasion Monty Panesar wasn’t bowling short. Even the chance he offered was relatively safe. He went down the wicket and smashed the ball at Panesar, who dropped it. If you’re going to pick anyone, it should be Panesar.
His six off Broad to bring up his fifty wasn’t just a six off Broad to bring up a fifty. It was a six off Broad, who was using the second new ball, to bring up a fifty. After that, Bailey resumed his battle with Anderson. It was an over where very little happened. The only question was what score Bailey would be not out on at close.
Then he middled another pull shot off Broad. This one went lower and Graeme Swann at square leg pulled off the sort of catch that gets you a lot of Youtube hits. Australia had recovered but were not yet out of the danger zone.
Brad Haddin would change that, and Bailey wouldn’t bat in the second innings.
In 2013, Bailey did something that had a higher-profile player done it, would have been praised on talkback radio and in opinion pieces. He turned his back on the IPL and made an attempt to prove himself as a Test player.
He could have sat on the bench for Chennai Super Kings again, and then played another T20 league or two, made a fair bit of money, and had a bit of off time. Instead he chose to be in England, playing mostly red-ball cricket, as the Australian team was there for the Ashes.
It was a two-fold attack. It started as a way to prove he was actually committed to playing Test cricket. And by being in the UK, and already being an Australian ODI and T20 player, at worst he might have made the Test side. Hell, with Michael Clarke’s back a shoelace tie away from breaking, Bailey could have even been a Test captain despite not even being in the original squad.
At the WACA it was noticeable that Jimmy Anderson bowled quicker to Bailey than he had before. Now it could have just been the imagination of a sportswriter looking for narrative, or the rhythm that a bowler can get into during the day, but Anderson bowled as quick in one over to Bailey as he had at any time in the series. But he didn’t get him out.
It was Broad and the short ball that did it again. Bailey seemed intent on never taking a backward step, even when on the back foot. He wouldn’t be bullied or bombed by England. So he tried to hook a short ball and found Pietersen, who did everything he could to make the catch look awkward.
Australia were in another hole, but Haddin mopped up again.
Clarke’s back didn’t work at all for the Champions Trophy. So Bailey took over. He batted well, Australia played horribly, and it was suddenly clear, while many still didn’t rate him, that he had somehow become Australia’s most consistent ODI batsman.
With Clarke in London, and David Warner in trouble, it was Bailey who had to front the press. He did it well, while making it very clear he couldn’t wait for Clarke to come back.
Clarke would come back, and would captain with no more real problems for his back, so Bailey was never needed as Test captain, or even Test squad member. Instead he came back for the ODIs at the end of the English summer, and made more runs. His batting average and ODI batting ranking were really high for someone whom no one ever seemed to talk up, or often even about.
The second innings at the WACA was brutal on England. They walked out knowing the series was gone. They fielded poorly, Broad was injured, Anderson looked over it, Swann was fading, and it was really very hot. Australia skipped joyfully to a declaration.
Bailey rejoined the fun when Australia were over 400 runs ahead. He sat at the other end while Shane Watson head-butted the English corpse for a hundred. Bailey didn’t do much damage himself. After 24 balls he had hit one boundary (only a four) and was 11 not out.
Then he came back in touch with his old friend Anderson. What happened next seemed like it would break a few rules of the Geneva convention. Bailey tore up what was left of Anderson like he was made of tissue paper on a windy day.
When Bailey’s boundary-hitting massacre finished, there was a puddle of blood at the top of the mark where Anderson had once stood. For Bailey, that over could not have come from a more perfect opponent.
George Bailey had some fun in India. 85, 92 not out, 43, 98, 156 and 4.
Flat pitches, an amazingly weak bowling attack, and small boundaries all helped Bailey average over 95 at a strike rate of 116. People had to write about it. They had to hype it. Well not even hype it, just report it accurately, and let people moan at the numbers.
This wasn’t another series, this was a coming-out party. Every six, and there were 15 of them, rang a bell, and with the next Ashes around the corner, and a batting spot available for anyone who wanted it, Bailey had made it very clear that he wanted it.
The press could have looked at it from a detailed and analytical standpoint. Bailey had played very well in ODIs in England and India, and he was clearly seeing the ball amazingly, but how was his red-ball form? Had he made any runs playing for Hampshire in county cricket, or any runs for Tasmania in last year’s Sheffield Shield?
Who cares? Look at his hitting in Mohali.
The selectors and fans seemed to do the same. Very few seemed to notice, worry or bother with the fact he hadn’t made a first-class hundred since February 2012.
Bailey was selected with as much fanfare as a six at a Big Bash game. He had been noticed, and embraced.
Bailey faced 18 balls at the MCG. He was at the wicket with his team in trouble. The ball was reversing. This wasn’t the time to attempt to beat his world- record overs tally efforts of the WACA. This was the time for survival.
Straight dead bats. Grim determination. Last-minute adjustments. Small backlifts. Sure movements.
That was surely the plan. But Bailey was uneasy. One leave almost ended with him caught at slip, and then run out in the confusion. A huge leg-before shout from Broad was turned down because of a small inside edge. It was nervy, and nasty, and then Bailey found himself at Anderson’s end.
In the first over Anderson found a spot and just kept at it. The first four balls landed within six inches of each other. Three of them seemed to hit the exact same spot. The reverse was not deadly, it was just there. Even the smallest hint of reverse from a decent bowler can upset an Australian batsman more than most. But the second over at Bailey, now that was Anderson the chessmaster.
The seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth balls from Anderson to Bailey were all on or about the same line and length. He was keeping him on the crease, not letting him really come forward or back. None had big movement. None was meant to. They were about getting him used to the ball coming in at him from that line and length.
The 11th ball kept the same length. But it was six inches wider than the others. It was supposed to be wider, because it also went wider through reverse movement.
Had No. 11 kept its line, Bailey might have used the width to hit it for four. He certainly saw it as the weakest ball he faced. But it didn’t, it was a trap. And Bailey, who had not scored after being out there for several overs, didn’t see it and went for it.
England were convinced Bailey hit it. Aleem Dar wasn’t. The evidence was far from conclusive. But the dismissal had passed enough protocols for the third umpire to decide that it was out. It’s possible Bailey didn’t hit it. It’s not possible Anderson didn’t completely fox him.
Bailey was not needed for the second innings.
In Sydney, Bailey wasn’t just fighting Anderson and England. Another foe joined in.
There had been history between Bailey and Channel Nine. When Bailey was filling in as captain of the Australian ODI team the previous summer, he had been involved in a weird media event. Channel Nine had been bemoaning Australia resting of key players (informed player management, they call it). When Bailey was asked about it, he put a spin on the fact that Channel Nine were currently in negotiations with Cricket Australia about paying for rights, and that it may be in their interests to downplay the worth of one-dayers.
That prompted a bizarre response from Brad McNamara, Channel Nine’s executive producer of cricket. “It’s rubbish and George should stick to playing cricket and leave rights to the people who know what they’re talking about. I reckon he’s got his hands full as it is. He needs to concentrate on staying in the side. And he needs to understand where his money’s coming from. Without the TV rights deal, George is probably working in a coal mine or flipping burgers at McDonald’s.”
McNamara was rightfully laughed at for his comments.
These comments were brought up a fair bit when Bailey failed to make a fifty in two attempts in Sydney. Mostly because it seemed that no one in the Channel Nine box could make a comment about him that wasn’t negative. His feet, hands, technique and temperament were questioned. His second-innings 46 was not enough. And they weren’t always wrong. It just seemed kind of mean. Especially when at the back of the press box some seemed happy when he was out.
But it went deeper than McNamara’s comments. Bailey had made mistakes in his career. He hadn’t made enough first-class runs. He hadn’t come into the team as a young man. He came into the captaincy without playing a game. He came into the Test team because of one-day runs. He was everything old-school cricket didn’t like. A thinking cricketer who had never demanded inclusion, but who had been included regardless.
For old-school types like Ian Chappell, he was pretty much everything he didn’t like. And Chappell wasn’t just turning on Bailey because of his stoush with Channel Nine. He had not liked Bailey for a long time.
To show how Bailey never fit in, there is no better article than the one by former good old boy larrikin Aussie cricketer (briefly) Brett Geeves for Inside Cricket. In it, Geeves listed the many reasons why Bailey was not a good captain. And the piece would have had more relevance had Bailey not captained the reigning winning Sheffield Shield team when the piece was published.
Before his fourth Test, Bailey stood outside the MCG doing an interview. He stood there for a long time, and because of the cameras and the familiar Australia tracksuit, a crowd turned up. But it wasn’t until the interviewer said, “Thanks George” that most of the crowd realised who it was.
At that stage, he had been an Australian captain for two years. He had played three Ashes Tests, all won. He had fought with Anderson. But he was still not really known. Not embraced. Still invisible. After Sydney, he wasn’t really dropped, just not picked for the next series. Just sort of faded away.
At a press conference afterwards he didn’t complain, or rant. He just took the decision with a slight smile. And then left.
Graeme Smith trampled the grass between the slip cordon and the pitch, until he was level with David Warner. Then he let go with some straight talking about Joe Root and other home truths for Warner. Smith stood barely a metre from the batsman, towering above, but looking in another direction. Then, when he was sure Warner, and anyone with access to the stump mic, had got the message, he strolled, letting play continue once he was back in his spot at slip. That was Biff.
A short time later Morne Morkel was trapped in one of his overs from hell. Smith saw it, and ran up to help his lost fast bowler. He gave him the large paw on the shoulder, and deciding that Morne could use a bit more support, he stayed at mid-off until he was satisfied Morne was okay. Only then did he return to fill the massive hole he left at slip. That was Biff.
The squat is the same. So are the massive shoulders that his massive jaw is virtually on top of, clearly visible beneath a massive helmet. The arm guard is pointed straight at the umpire. His toes bobble up and down. There are two precise slow taps of the bat. Knees bent, back hunched like he is too big for his equipment, too big to even be that good at batting. He holds the bat like only he could lift it, not so he can swing it, but more so he can drop it on the ball.
And he faces Glenn McGrath. McGrath, the seasoned veteran who still looks like a boy, bowling to the confident boy with the man’s body. In any sort of hand-to-hand combat, McGrath would likely be crushed. But with the ball, against a young kid thrown in at No. 3, McGrath wins often. Caught by Ponting, for 3.
In the second innings, Smith fights back. He turns balls from off stump to the leg side with that twist of his arms you will know so much you could imitate it drunk at 3am. When facing Shane Warne, he’ll lean forward, eager to show he is not afraid of Warne. Then, when the ball suits him and he gets some air, he’ll race at Warne, stamping his feet and lofting over mid-on with a beautiful lack of elegance. Eventually Warne will take the brash kid’s wicket. Caught behind, by Gilchrist, for 68.
At Newlands, in 2002, that kid making his Test debut was dismissed twice, by four legends of the game.
Smith’s form continued and he thought, rightfully, that he should have been in South Africa’s squad to play the 2003 World Cup at home. And he wanted to make his point. He did it by demanding he captain Western Province against South Africa in a warm-up match. A bold move from someone his age. What was supposed to be an intra-SA friendly match turned darker and tougher when Smith demanded that his players take it seriously and take down the main team.
It could have gone horribly wrong. Considering the players on both sides, it probably should have. Western Province won by seven wickets and almost 20 overs to spare. That’s not a contest. In the later games, which Smith did not captain, the senior team smashed their opposition. They had been burned once.
Smith’s biggest impact might have been when he and Shaun Pollock went toe to toe during one of those matches. The issue was trivial. Smith was upset that Pollock wasn’t adhering to the fielding conditions of an ODI match. He wanted it done properly, Pollock was just happy to have a warm-up. Here was a player in and out of the national team standing in the face of Pollock, a legend and captain. That is something people notice.
Smith had captained Gauteng school teams many times, and had experience in a few other senior games. But basically, that game he won for Western Province and him leading South Africa A in a comeback 2-1 win against a good Zimbabwe side was about it. And Shaun Pollock was captaining South Africa in the World Cup. Graeme Smith wasn’t even in the squad.
Hosting the World Cup was a monumental deal for South Africa. They wanted people to see that they were growing, that they were changing and that their part of the world was getting it right. On one day of the tournament, someone who brought the old South African flag into a ground was turfed out. None of that, people are watching, we must be at our best.
Their team wasn’t. They were so bad it even made news in the US when they crashed out of the tournament before it really began. Smith came in for three games, after Jonty Rhodes was ruled out with injury, and averaged 40. In Durban, he made 35 opening the batting against Sri Lanka. That’s not what people remember from that game. They remember that South Africa got their Duckworth-Lewis calculation wrong. They became a laughing stock to the world, but at home they were upset.
So upset that despite being the second-ranked ODI team, the second-ranked Test team and having won 13 of their last 16 Test series, Pollock was out. They needed someone new.
It was stupid and reactionary. A jumbo panic button to stop the yelling. Cricket administrators are nothing if not adept at offering sacrificial lambs for the press and fans to slaughter. Graham Ford was upset Pollock was gone, “Polly was a soft target. All I can conclude is that people hit on him in order to save their own jobs.”
Former South Africa coach, the late Bob Woolmer, said during that World Cup, “There is a vacuum in South African cricket. South Africa is not producing the type of cricketers it used to anymore. Many cricketers, both black and white, are not sure what the future holds for them.” It wasn’t just Woolmer thinking this. Allan Donald and Rhodes were done. Gary Kirsten was next. Pollock was embarrassed.
It wasn’t a vacuum, but a monumental chasm. And it needed to be filled.
A vetting committee to help find a captain was formed. It was the national professional selection advice committee, or something like that. They didn’t have many options. Kirsten was not going to last long. Mark Boucher was a wicketkeeper. Jacques Kallis was who he was. All they had was a young lad who had presence.
Presence is like an X-factor, hard to explain, but Smith had this immense presence when he was in front of you. Monstrous confidence radiated through him. Somehow he comforted the leaders of South African cricket, and they completely forgot their history as a conservative cricket nation, and Smith bustled his way through.
Smith was the youngest captain of his country. Almost 50 years earlier Ian Craig had been the same for Australia – a teen prodigy who had taken the job when Australia desperately needed someone. The idea was he would lead a youngish side into the promised land. He had already toured England, and captained New South Wales to a Shield win, and with six Tests to his name he took over the main job. He was practically the same age as Smith when he took over.
Despite having no quota system, a solid year of captaining older men behind him, no 24-hour news cycle or the internet, Craig, the young batting genius, captained in only one Test series – series he won, but in which he made no real runs and tried to drop himself for the last match. Due to illness and bad form, and without the backing of senior players, Craig was ruined.
There were some in South Africa who were worried that something similar would happen to Smith. So there was a compromise that was considered, a thought that Smith could be an apprentice to Pollock. Pollock said no, Smith said no. They were different men. Pollock backed Smith. Smith backed Smith.
Thirty-five days after his Western Province team had beaten South Africa, Smith was captain of his country.
He had barely played outside South Africa – a few ODIs in Sri Lanka – and he knew little of international cricket. But Smith knew he wanted to conquer it. He knew he wanted the team to lead, and with eight Tests and 22 ODIs to his name, he went about it.
Smith quickly distanced himself from disgraced (but still loved) former captain Cronje at his first press conference. What was left of Cronje’s team was also leaving. He also distanced himself from Pollock as a leader.
Pollock was laid back and magically gifted. It had been bred in him. Smith was a worker and his team would be more like him. South Africa would get to the ground earlier, and train harder and longer. More would be made of the nationalistic side of playing for the country. Smith wanted his men as inspired and prepared as he was.
Smith also said stupid things in the early days. People didn’t like him for it. He was not the only 22-year old to say stupid things, but he wasn’t a normal 22-year old. Australia seemed to hate him on first sight and felt betrayed that he mentioned their sledging in public. Some in South Africa felt he was more mouth than talent. And he arrived in England full of words.
It was in England that his career as captain really started. With Matthew Hayden sledging him from many time zones away, and Nasser Hussain’s massive insult of “wotshisname”, Smith was learning that being captain involved more than just turning up half an hour earlier at the ground. So he reacted in a brutal way. He scored 277. His second double-century in 11 Tests. In his 12th, he would score another. Hussain retired. Hayden looked silly.
From there, Smith built an empire based around the all-round brilliance of Kallis, champion bowlers of different eras, two of the sexiest batting talents in modern cricket. He balanced all this on his frame. No matter how good the other players were, or how amazing their feats were, everyone knew who the leader was. He was at the front, and hard to miss.
Smith made a bunch of runs in the second best chase in Tests and the best chase in ODIs. He added Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss to England captains he saw off. He was in charge when South Africa were the No. 1 ODI team. He was in charge when they were the No. 1 Test Team. And it was under Smith that Australia’s reign as the best team finally ended.
He did it all while opening the batting. When Smith is on the field, he has a little telltale sign that he is thinking hard, or something is going wrong for him. He slips his cap back a bit on his head, and rubs the front of his hair. Unlike most captains, he hasn’t gone grey or even started to bald, despite that hefty duke rubbing his head several times a day. Then, after all that thinking, Smith goes out to bat. When he does that he averages 48.
With a dodgy technique, a frame too large for batting, political pressures on selection, the chief executive who gave him the job sacked, the pressure of captaincy for over a decade, a few coaches, a public split with an ‘it’ girl, growing into a man, dealing with a friend’s career-ending injury, choking at World Cups, a long-distance relationship, and kids with illnesses, Smith still kept that average. That is a feat of a hungry giant.
But nothing is ever enough. In 2011, South African crowds booed Smith shortly after his team lost the World Cup quarter-final to New Zealand. A forensic examination of that South African team suggested a middle order that could be a problem under extreme temperatures. But, they had Hashim Amla, Smith, AB de Villiers and Kallis in the top four. Chasing a total of 221, I mean, come on. South Africa had tried to promote the phrase ‘C is for Champions’. But after that, well, C went back to its old friend Choke. Smith was one hell of a leader, but even he could not carry his team to a World Cup victory, or even a final.
After the game, the South African players went home to show how sad they were at the airport. Smith did not. He went to Ireland. This seemed to infuriate everyone. It would turn out that he was doing to so seal the deal with the current Mrs. Deane-Smith. But he didn’t take his punishment from the fans.
So the most successful captain in South Africa’s history, the man who took his team to No. 1, who slayed Australia and burnt down English captains, was booed by his crowd. Some never forgave Smith for being brash when he was young. Others simply never stopped loving the confessed match-fixer Hansie Cronje (voted 11th greatest South African in a SABC poll in 2004). Even in Port Elizabeth, where Smith orchestrated a comeback win against the odds, there was a man wearing a Cronje t-shirt in the crowd. Cronje wasn’t the batsman Smith was. He wasn’t the leader Smith was. He wasn’t even the man that Smith was.
But if you search the internet with questions about who the better captain was, you’ll get bizarre answers like “Hansie WAS the best, unfortunately due to circumstances apparently beyond his control … he was forced to do the ‘devils’ work.” And ” I suppose it also depends on whether you like Graeme Smith or not! Personally I cannot stand him. I loved Hansie and he was a brilliant sportsman”. It’s hard to argue that Cronje was not a good tactician in the field, certainly more adventurous than Smith, but Smith averaged 12 runs more, beat Australia in Australia and England in England when Cronje never did, lost the same amount of World Cups, has a similar win-loss record, captained a team to No. 1 in two forms of the game and never ever sold out his country for a leather jacket.
And Smith did it all after starting as the youngest captain in his nation’s history, and then becoming the longest serving.
Smith has been in charge for 4006 days. In that time, a boy band could form, become No. 1, tour the world, split up to do solo stuff, end up in rehab, and then reform as retro throwback to appeal to their original fans. In 2003, we didn’t know what an iPhone was, there was no Facebook and Julian Assange was an angry Melbourne hacker. There are 15-year old kids who have grown up only knowing Smith as captain. He has longevity, results and integrity. He isn’t perfect, and has certainly spent years trying to prove that left-hand batsmen aren’t actually more aesthetically appealing than right-hand batsmen. But he deserves to be respected as brutal, ugly monolith of world cricket. The large guy who was always there.
Since the age of 10, Smith had been saying he wanted to captain his country. He put goals on his fridge, and he accomplished them. Then he helped his country finally live up to its potential, while guiding a whole generation of players. But he isn’t that kid anymore, he now has his own kids, one with an illness whom he needs to spend more time with. He isn’t the angry young man demanding to get into the team, he isn’t the bullish guy spraying people at press conferences, he is the old guy looking at a quieter life with his family.
Smith barged out onto the ground. His partner well behind him. The crowd stood. The officials rushed. The cameramen buzzed. Everyone looked miniature in comparison. Like a giant ape climbing a New York building, all eyes were on him. Smith the giant.
Australia waited in formation to honour him. The giant squeezed through them and out onto the pitch. His Western Province wicket. Clutching his GM chunk of tree, he would lead his country one last time. Them always behind him. He’ led. He led for a long time. He led well. The brutish behemoth. Biff leads. Then Biff leaves.
Leaving a tremendous hole that would take more than one man to fill.
There is something floating in Ryan Harris‘ knee. The medical community thinks it is bone. It’s probably magic. Or a little pebble of awesomeness. Nothing else explains his last over.
In the overs before, Harris could barely bend over when fielding at gully. His hands were at the top of his thigh, not down near his knee in the customary position. When he walked, you were watching someone with osteoarthritis move, or someone who had done a whole day of rodeo. And when he stood up at the end of each ball you could hear the creaking all around the ground. Even his hip flexor had given out, possibly from the flexing he was doing more and more just to get by. Crocked. Stuffed. Finished. Another over was surely beyond him. Another Test might have been as well.
His job was to stay out on the ground to celebrate the potential Australian win. The win that they couldn’t get. Vernon Philander’s hand and Dale Steyn’s bloody-mindedness were drawing the Test. Here were two forces.
One, the South Africans, they just refuse to lose a Test series. They’re better when the primal need for survival has been put on them by their own shoddiness. This time, they had extra motivation with their captain, hero and leader on his last mission. They couldn’t have done more to draw this game if they decided to dig actual trenches at the Kelvin Grove end. Against them was a very movable force. The fluid in Harris’ knee was moving the bone quite often.
Australia thought they’d get eight or ten overs out of him in the entire second innings. The wicket of AB deVilliers was in his fifteenth. You should never call this dismissal anything as dismal as a wicket. It was a triumph of man over superman. De Villiers is currently batting like the laws of physics don’t apply to him. It is as if he has learnt to see into the future and decides on his shot as the bowler is coming in. Getting him out in this form, with his assistance is virtually impossible. Getting him out without his assistance from a busted down old man who should be on crutches should be impossible. The only thing impossible was the Harris outswinger.
Ryan Harris winces in the face of impossible.
Today he winced from leg slip, slip, gully, short cover, or anywhere else you put the guy who stopped being able to move. But he kept coming back, more broken than before.
Tasmania had tried to break Queensland during the last Sheffield Shield final. They had prepared a pitch made of actual deserts. They batted in a coma. And then when Queendlsand tried to move the game on, they picked up enough wickets to lead by almost 200 runs after the first innings. In the first innings, Queensland had bowled 173.4 overs. Harris had bowled forty of those and taken three wickets.
But in the second innings, he just kept going in his opening spell. It seemed endless. Harris, and everyone watching or playing, knew that the only chance of a Queensland victory was with him. Tasmania collapsed under his pressure to 5 for 16. Harris bowled what felt like all the overs, he smashed the ball into this lifeless pitch, he demanded that the ball move for him, and he put his entire career in jeopardy by bowling 54 overs for his adopted state in a losing cause.
It seems that Harris just cannot quit. So why would he listen to his surgeon, his doctor, his physio, or anyone, when they said he couldn’t bowl again. He hadn’t ever listened to his body. Fast bowlers don’t start international careers over 30 in already broken down bodies and take over a hundred wickets. But Harris wouldn’t listen to modern medicine, he wouldn’t listen to science, he wouldn’t even listen to cricket stats.
His second last over of the day looked like his last, well his last of any note. He bowled a short quick one that scared Steyn. It was quicker than his over the previous night where he bowled an over of Shane Watson-paced slower balls.
But he didn’t look right. Instead of bashing through the crease like a Joe Frazier combination, steaming coming from his nose, his chest daring anyone to hit him, his legs were all over the place, and his fearsome torso looked attached to the wrong set of legs. His knee wasn’t working, his hip was flexing poorly, and he was trying to play through it all and conquer a pitch that gave nothing.
On the second last ball, he slipped as he delivered. It looked, for the shortest of moments, like the injury that could end him today, tomorrow and forever. But he just went back to his mark and somehow got through the over. He was now noticeably limping. His action and run up was falling apart. He had surely bowled his last over, or at least, his last of anything approaching pace.
Nathan Lyon was tried, but had little luck. Watson came back on to wobble them about a bit. And had he wobbled them slightly better, or at least had Steyn playing at them, Harris might not have come back when he did.
When he came on, you couldn’t shake the feeling that Ryan Harris shouldn’t be bowling. Ryan Harris shouldn’t be walking. Ryan Harris shouldn’t be bowling Australia to victory. Ryan Harris shouldn’t be running around the outfield having just taken the two final wickets in three balls. Ryan Harris should be with a surgeon, showing him how when he twists his knee, the bone clicks out of the bad bit and he can walk properly again.
Where did he find the swing or strength?
In the years to come it will read 24.3 overs, 15 maidens, 32 runs and four wickets. But unless it was written in synovial fluid, tears, bone, tendon and blood, no one will ever understand how good Ryan Harris was today. Whatever is in that knee, I hope they remove it, and get Ryan Harris fit again. Then I hope they show the removed item in a museum and schoolkids are bussed in to see it for years to come.
Morne Morkel bowled two of his first three balls to Clarke full. He bowled all three over the wicket. That was a massive waste of time and effort. That over didn’t start when Steyn went off after one ball, and it didn’t start with Morkel’s over the wicket ball in the corridor, it started when Morkel came around the wicket and slammed the ball into Clarke’s ribs. Clarke didn’t play it, he just clutched it to himself like an injured bird. There was now little chance of Morkel coming back over the wicket. Or Clarke getting tested with the full swinging ball.
Short ball. Short ball. Elgar over.
Morkel now had his aim right. It was somewhere between the arm pit and left nipple. Clarke was moving back and across and into the missile’s trajectory. He was a slow-moving target, and Morkel hit him right on the arm. It looked like, to paraphrase Clarke himself, “a broken f**ken arm”. Which is something that one of the South Africans might have mentioned to him. The super slow motion looked like a shock ad to teach you the lessons of not wearing arm guards. At the end of the over, when Clarke was touched by the physio, it looked like he’d rather not be.
Warner tried to protect his captain by keeping strike a couple of times. One ball that Warner called two on Clarke just jogged the one to get back on strike. Clarke had moved back to No. 4. Clarke hadn’t made any runs. Clarke would not hide at the non-strikers end.
Short ball. Short ball. Elgar over. Short ball. Short ball.
Shoulder and head. 44.3.
Clarke had had enough of standing upright and being hit, so he dropped to get under another ball on an armpit-nipple length. This time the ball didn’t quite get up, but Clarke couldn’t see as he had turned his head away, and the ball crashed into his shoulder. From there it ricocheted up into his jaw. Clarke tossed his bat, stumbled off the pitch and was surrounded by worried South Africans. None more so than Morne Morkel. Seemingly everyone within Cricket Australia with a first aid certificate came out to check on the captain. The cameras found Shane Warne looking worried on the balcony, an odd twist on the grieving wife shot. They decideed that Clarke is okay. After a few minutes, he faced up again.
The ball was straight back at him, Clarke flinched early, he took his eye off it, this time it hit his hand and flew straight up in the air. Clarke had no idea where the ball is. JP Duminy rushed in like a mad man from a deepish short leg, the ball beat him to the ground, but went very close to the stumps. Clarke could have been caught, Clarke could have been bowled, and Clarke could have had a broken hand. Clarke is under attack.
Clarke was now clearly over just being hit and decided to try the attacking option. The pull shot to get away from the short ball worked for him in Adelaide when England tried the same thing. This time he just sort of got hit around the gut as the ball ended up behind him.
When Warner faced a short ball from Morkel it ended up smashing it’s way to the fine leg boundary between two fielders. The difference was as great between Warner and Clarke as it was between Mornzilla and Elgar Smurf. Everyone at the ground wanted to fast forward the Elgar overs or any balls when Warner was facing. No one even worried much about Steyn’s injury.
Short ball. Elgar over. Short ball. Short ball. Short ball. Short ball. Elgar over. Short ball. Morne taken off.
With the new ball Morkel achieved some sideways movement. And for a while, he pretended that Clarke was just another batsman. Clarke even pushed one through mid-on in what looked like very civilised cricket. More shockingly, Clarke smacked a pull through midwicket. But Clarke wasn’t just another batsman, and Morne went back to the beautiful barbaric nature of armpits around the wicket. Leg slip came back in smelling blood. And Morkel produced it with another ball that almost ripped the top of Clarke’s thumb off. Much time was taken to reattach the thumb nail. Blood was wiped away. And then Clarke took any chance he could to get off strike for the next ball, surviving a possible run-out and getting a well earned five.
Finally Clarke could rest at the non-strikers end. He had nothing left to prove, and nothing left to injure. He had survived.