When we talk about the great captains of the modern era, a certain Graeme Smith has every right to stake his claim for the very top spot. Pushed into the top job in South African cricket at the tender age of 22, Smith has led his side remarkably through all these years and has gone on to become the most successful test captain with the highest number of test wins. Earlier this year, on February 1 2013, he became the first captain to lead a team in one hundred Tests when he led South Africa against Pakistan at Johannesburg.
Leading a side in a test match is a massive honour, a privilege only few are bestowed upon. It is also a challenge that requires every inch of one’s cricketing skills, as well as leadership and management qualities. And to captain an international side at the highest level for over a decade and in over a hundred test matches speaks volumes of Smith’s inherent leadership qualities and his stature as a leader of men in a South African side perched at the pinnacle of the Gentleman’s game.
After South Africa’s shock early exit from the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2003, a 22-year old Graeme Smith was awarded the mantle of captaincy and was asked to lead to oversee a revolution of sorts in South African cricket after the country had suffered the humiliation of being knocked out in the first round in the World Cup. A bold decision many would say, as Graeme Smith had barely played a handful of test matches upto then, and wasn’t even a part of the original World Cup squad. But instead of relying on the experienced Jacques Kallis or Mark Boucher, the South African management made their intentions clear by naming Smith at the helm of affairs, something which had reaped rich dividends for New Zealand when they had named a young Stephen Fleming as captain few years back.
The 22-year old faced his first test in Bangladesh when South Africa toured for a one-day tri-series and a two-Test match series. South Africa were blown away in the first ODI game, but redeemed themselves in the remaining games, and their young skipper lived to fight another day. But it was the tour of England that cemented Smith as a batsman and leader, and reassured the selectors that he was indeed the right man for the job, as he displayed tremendous grit and character to help himself to two double hundreds.
It is Smith’s gritty nature and his tendency to grind out a knock, even in challenging circumstances, that make him stand out as a batsman and captain. There is a sense of fight about him and a steely determination that inspires others in the side to raise their game, and helps him earn the respect of his peers. Under his regime, players like AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Dale Steyn and Faf du Plessis among many others have flourished to become top-class players capable of rubbing shoulders with the very best in the world. And it is this camaraderie that he shares with his players that helps him extract the best out of his chargers, and is one of the key ingredients of South Africa’s continued domination.
I am not the greatest believer in statistics, but whichever way you choose to look at them, they will tell you that South Africa under Graeme Smith are a side which believes they have the skills to flourish in any situation – irrespective of the conditions. After all, winning two consecutive test series in England and Australia is no mean feat, something that no other country has managed to achieve in recent times. In addition to his glories in England and Down Under, Smith has also led a South African side to earn a draw in two consecutive test series in India which is another remarkable achievement and outlines South Africa’s strength in all kinds of conditions. And unlike some of the other great leaders of our times – Stephen Fleming, Michael Vaughan and Sourav Ganguly – who let their captaincy come in the way of their batting, Smith’s responsibilities as a captain hasn’t diminished his aura with the bat one wee bit. An average of close to 50 in test cricket is a testament to Smith’s ability to draw a line between the two facets of the game. Recently, in the test match against India at the Wanderers, it was Smith who led the South African charge in the fourth innings, helping the hosts to salvage a draw in difficult circumstances.
And Smith’s unquestionable commitment and dedication to the South African cause helps him set an example for his teammates, and it was in evidence when the Proteas toured Australia in early 2009. South Africa had already won the Test series and the final game of the series was going in Australia’s favor. Smith had broken his hand in the first innings and was unlikely to bat in the second. With nine wickets down in the fourth innings, a Proteas defeat was obvious, but to everyone’s astonishment, the captain walked out to put up a brave front. That he held on for a few deliveries to delay the defeat was phenomenal – particularly when you consider the excruciating pain he suffered. Australia won the match, and Smith, everyone’s hearts.
And here’s a message to all opposition teams that is sure to keep them on their toes – Graeme Smith is not done yet.