Another vulcan exits the South African smithy

Graeme Smith is still a fine batsman, but the weary traveller in him opted for rest and cuddles with the family. None can grudge him that simple but enduring pleasure though South Africa would be poorer without him. By K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Over a year, destiny’s cold hands, the march of Father Time and the enduring pull of a young family have all combined to negate South Africa’s cricketing riches.

A freak injury forced Mark Boucher to hang up his wicket-keeping gloves. The dull aches of middle age nudged Jacques Kallis to quit Tests. And now the Proteas have suffered their biggest shock — skipper Graeme Smith’s instant retirement after the recent Newlands Test in Cape Town.

He cited the need to be with his family as the primary reason behind his final bow while a few creaky bones too played their part in hastening his exit. “It is a decision that I have been considering since my ankle surgery in April last year. I have a young family to consider, and I felt that retiring at Newlands would be the best way to end it because I have called this place home since I was 18 years old,” Smith said.

At 33, Smith’s road ahead was obviously shorter than the one he had traversed since his international debut when he was just 22. Yet, his announcement was a sledgehammer blow specifically to his own team and to the Rainbow Nation at large because Smith, in his dual role as captain and opener, has been the first to stand in the firing-line and guide his team.

His numbers are impressive — 9265 Test runs, an ODI yield of 6,989 — and above this, his captaincy record exemplary while shepherding the Proteas in 109 Tests, the highest so far by any skipper. It was a tenure during which South Africa emerged as a team to avoid for rivals in the longer version, given its consistency and its array of match-winners.

The aberration though was the absence of ICC silverware like the World Cup and the ICC World Twenty20 in the cupboards of Cricket South Africa. But like Rudyard Kipling’s oft-quoted lines, Smith dealt with triumph and disaster as impostors and there was a certain grace to the way he helmed his squad.

After suffering a shock loss against New Zealand in the World Cup quarterfinal in Dhaka in 2011, a scribe insensitively told Smith that besides being called ‘çhokers,’ the South Africans might be now called ‘jokers.’ A hurt Smith would have been excused if he had said something in anger but while his eyes mirrored grief, his lips uttered: “I don't think so.” Those words said volumes about the man.

Remember, when Smith took over as captain, the squad was still coping with the dark clouds that engulfed South African cricket due to the late Hansie Cronje’s indulgences with bookies. Faith was torn and to make it worse, the subsequent captain Shaun Pollock, despite his best intentions, could not inspire his men.

The ‘crown of thorns’ was quickly passed to Smith, who at 22, lapped up the honour without any trepidation! He embraced the task with gravitas, had dinner with Mike Brearley and picked the former England captain’s brains. Such was his self-belief that there is an anecdote about how he scribbled his desire to lead his country on a paper and placed it behind his fridge magnet. Smith was 12 then! Surely that strong self-esteem helped him and his men go places.

However, like the double-whammy that Australia suffered when Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey retired in quick succession, South Africa too was in for a similar predicament as Smith followed Kallis back to the pavilion. However Kallis, if selected, will continue to serve South Africa in limited overs cricket while Smith has a commitment to honour with Surrey in county cricket where Kevin Pietersen will be his team-mate.

But the South African Test outfit will never be the same without these stalwarts. Meanwhile, Smith is banking on the traits of ‘giving your best and competing hard’ that he infused into the team, to carry it forward. “I have always been someone who has left everything out there on the field for my team and for my country. I am extremely honoured and proud to have had the privilege to lead so many wonderful players and to have been a part of building the Proteas culture to what it is today,” Smith said.

Smith’s early cricketing twilight was also to a small extent rushed by his recent lack of big runs and we are talking about a man, who slammed double hundreds in his 11 and 12th Tests! And dwelling upon double hundreds, Smith did post one against Pakistan in the Middle East a few months back. Sadly that was his last larger-than-life act.

After that, Smith the batsman, was no longer imposing his massive frame on the 22 yards. During a relatively low-key home summer for him, Smith scored 68, 44, 47 and 27 n.o. against India. Surely these are consistent numbers, but for a man of his calibre, they simply did not add up. Then the Aussies landed with Mitchell Johnson cranking up speed and though the South Africans battled hard, a gripping series was lost 1-2 and above all, their leader could only eke out 10, 4, 9, 14, 5 and 3.

Smith is still a fine batsman, but the weary traveller in him opted for rest and cuddles with the family. None can grudge him that simple but enduring pleasure though South Africa would be poorer without him.

A. B. de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn, to name a few, have a tough task on hand while the Proteas rebuild and aim to take Smith’s legacy forward.