For me, the defining statistic for Graeme Smith, who retired as captain of the South African cricket team this week, is that he made four match-winning centuries in the fourth innings – and three of those were away from home. No other batsman in the history of the game – let alone a captain – has done that.
Just to put this into perspective – Sachin Tendulkar, who played almost twice as many Tests as Graeme Smith, never made a century, or even crossed fifty, in either the third or fourth innings, to win a Test for India outside the sub-continent. Not even once in a 24-year career.
So that brings us to the first of the character traits that I admire the most in Graeme Smith.
1. Standing up to pressure:
The English autumn will always be special for Smith. He made 154 not out on the final day of a Test in Edgebaston in 2008, to lead South Africa to a Test series victory in England for the first time in 43 years. All the other batsmen in his side had succumbed to the pressure of pulling that off. The next highest score was 45 by wicket-keeper Mark Boucher, with whom Smith shared a century stand to reach the target, after South Africa were tottering on the brink of defeat.
This was the start of South Africa’s ascendancy to the No.1 position in Test cricket after their re-admission to the comity of nations post-apartheid. To stand up to pressure in the fourth innings, away from home, that too as an opener facing the new ball in seaming conditions, to lead the team to victory against the odds, is as inspiring as it gets. Smith repeated the heroic act in Perth the same year, making a century as South Africa scored 414 to beat Australia – the second highest run chase in Test history, which led to South Africa recording their first ever Test series triumph Down Under.
2. Never too young to lead:
Graeme Smith was thrown in at the deep end to lead his country’s cricket team when he was just 22, and had played only 8 Tests. South African cricket was struggling to overcome the Hansie Cronje match-fixing scandal, followed by the debacle of an early exit from the 2003 World Cup on home soil in ludicrous circumstances. (A misunderstanding of the required runs under the Duckworth-Lewis formula for a rain-affected match KO’d South Africa.)
So a fresh face was desperately needed to take over from Shaun Pollock, who had always seemed a reluctant captain, anyway. Preferably, it had to be someone disconnected from fixer Cronje. Smith was the man for the occasion.
It’s a tall order for a 22-year-old to lead a national cricket team with stalwarts like Gary Kirsten, Jacques Kallis and Pollock in it. Smith did it the only way he could have – by leading from the front. Back-to-back double centuries in England soon after taking over the captaincy earned him the respect of his team-mates and silenced sceptics back home. He was raw, easily provoked and made mistakes, but determined to succeed and willing to figure out a way – which he did. As he summed it up himself after his final Test, “As a leader, when you start to figure out the type of players and the environment you want and you see it growing as it has, that for me is the greatest achievement.”
3. Drawing a line in the sand:
As a young leader, Smith had his work cut out to assert his authority over the team – especially some of the older members. A constant bugbear was hard-hitting all-rounder Lance Klusener. who had been a match-winner for South Africa on quite a few occasions, but seemed to thumb his nose at the new pretender to the throne vacated by Hansie Cronje and Shaun Pollock. Smith insisted that the selectors drop Klusener because he was a “divisive influence” on the team. This was a line-in-the-sand moment for him. He caught plenty of flak in the media for his uncompromising stance, but nobody could argue with the progress of the team subsequently.
Another watershed was the quota system as affirmative action to make cricket more inclusive in South Africa. Smith played a pivotal part in getting players like Makhaya Ntini and Ashwell Prince integrated into the predominantly white team. At the same time, he drew a line when he felt the selectors had overreached their brief. He offered to resign before a tour to Bangladesh unless he got the team he wanted. The selectors relented, but made it clear that the coach and captain would be held accountable for results. South Africa’s series victories in England and Australia came in the year after the confrontation. They also drew a series in India. Smith led from the front, averaging 85 in the 11 Tests South Africa won during that turbulent period.
4. Know thyself:
Smith’s strength of character also shows in the obstinacy with which he stuck to his unorthodox style of batting. His closed grip with bat face pointing to mid-wicket, shuffle across the wicket, and a leaden-footed stance had obvious weaknesses that bowlers exploited. He was particularly vulnerable to left-handers like Zaheer Khan and Mitchell Johnson who could angle the ball into him. But, by and large, his methods worked for him, picking off runs on the leg side even as bowlers kept trying to pin him LBW.
Taking advice on board from coaches or VCs is one thing, but in the end you have to know your limitations and back your strengths, as Smith did. “When I started my professional career all I used to hear about was my grip and my stance and that I needed to change a lot of things… If you don’t have as much talent as a lot of people but you are determined, work hard and are resilient, there is still a lot you can achieve in life and sport,” said the South African captain in his farewell speech.
5. Knowing when to walk away:
Graeme Smith is only 33 and probably had a few years of international cricket left in him. But his batting form had dipped of late. A chronic ankle injury shackled an already limited footwork. His captaincy too had become more defensive than risk-taking of late, focussing more on saving runs and waiting for mistakes, than making things happen. Against India in Johannesburg, South Africa played for a draw with three wickets in hand, when they were within sight of pulling off the highest run chase in the history of Test cricket. Most of all, his mind was no longer fully on the game. A domestic accident involving his 19-month-old daughter, which kept her in and out of hospital for weeks, left him torn between cricket and family life. True to character, he made a dignified exit, when more people would ask ‘why’ rather than ‘why not’.
— Sumit Chakraberty is the author of Master Laster: What They Don’t Tell You About Sachin Tendulkar