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By Suresh Menon
Graeme Smith turned 33 last month. This month he announced his retirement from cricket. The post-Graeme Pollock South Africa, better described as post-Apartheid, produced players who were efficient rather than artistic, practical rather than flamboyant, and none symbolised this more than Smith who finishes with just under ten thousand Test runs and an average of nearly fifty.
Not for him the elegant cover drive, he preferred the bludgeon to the rapier; the gentle nudge he left to others. Smith’s batting was like the man himself: forthright, uncompromising, unsubtle. When he was made captain at 22, he had the dual responsibility of finding his own feet while taking South Africa away from the stench and confusion of the match-fixing horrors visited upon them by a predecessor, Hansie Cronje.
So well did Smith succeed that he took the team to the number one spot in Test rankings, although when it came to the World Cup, they kept falling short. He announced his intentions with two double centuries in a series in England, and finished as the man to have captained the most number of times. He grew into his job, both as captain and player.
In more senses than one, he led from the front, opening the batting, and despite a tendency to play across or meet the ball while slightly off balance, he piled on the runs. As captain, he learnt both tactics and man management quickly enough to be seen as ideal for the job.
And like most tough leaders who had to take tough decisions at a difficult time for their teams, Smith divided opinion in his country. South African newspapers carried the news of his retirement with letters from readers commenting “good riddance” at one end of the scale and “goodbye, great warrior” at the other. It was a fate that had befallen Sourav Ganguly, who had played a similar role in pulling the national team out of the pit where it had been pushed into by a former captain. Michael Clarke is another who will empathise with Smith.
What these men have in common, apart from the obvious, is a studied refusal to complain or find excuses. When the going got tough, they got going too. Even in their own countries there were captains who were tactically superior or players who were better managers of men, yet when it came to sheer toughness and self-belief, these three stood at the top of the pile. They also tend to be better appreciated abroad than in their own countries. Perhaps posterity will truly appreciate the contributions of all three.
Since South Africa returned to international cricket in 1991, they have had only four regular captains: Kepler Wessels, Cronje, Shaun Pollock and Smith. Wessels had already played international cricket for Australia, an advantage in a team where everybody else was making his debut. Cronje began as the icon who could do no wrong, and it was left to Pollock to pick up the pieces when that dream crashed. Pollock had to go when South Africa lost in the opening round of the 2003 World Cup at home, and Smith was thrown into the deep end.
He developed the team which would contribute at least three players, if not four to an all-time XI : Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher, Dale Steyn, and possibly A B de Villiers. Kallis has retired, Boucher is lost to cricket with an injury, and it is likely that de Villiers will be named to succeed Smith.
Yet, 33 seems an unlikely age to end a career. Smith struggled in the current series against Australia, and at such times he cannot be blamed for wondering if it is worthwhile, especially with a young family at home. He has little left to achieve, unless it is taking South Africa to the World Cup title next year. It is a dream that is keeping another 33-year-old in his job: Mahendra Singh Dhoni. But Smith, who holds one half of the world record for the highest opening partnership in Tests, 415 with Neil McKenzie, has not made an impact in the shorter format since the last World Cup despite two centuries.
As a Test opener, Smith built up a reputation as a “fourth innings man”, his average in South Africa’s wins touching 87. His four centuries are the best by any batsmen in a winning run chase.
Smith’s retirement also continues a generational change in world cricket. Only Shiv Chanderpaul, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara of the old guard remain. South Africa might have struggled to find a replacement – but it is the ultimate tribute to Smith that the transition is likely to be smooth. It might be the end of an era, but it will not be the end of the Smith brand of cricket that served South Africa so well.