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.