Common name, unusual man

Published : Aug 16, 2003 00:00 IST

Only time will tell if Graeme Smith wipes out all the Don Bradman records. But at this moment, as he bestrides the game like a new Goliath, he seems set for the peak, able to aim for a career total beyond even Sachin Tendulkar's dreams and able to reduce the Bradman performances so that they can be measured in ordinary mortal terms, writes TED CORBETT.

SO, 70 years after he was at his peak and two years after his death, a batsman has boldly walked where only Don Bradman dared to tread before.

That is good news for everyone, since records are made to be broken and sport is all about change, the excitement of finding new talent, the hope that one day in the future some greater feat of arms will overtake every breathtaking moment.

Even as we celebrate the giants — Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher, Babe Ruth, W.G. Grace, Shane Warne, Carl Lewis, Pele, George Best, Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali and all the others who in their greatness rise above their sport to become international superstars — we hope that one day there will be another sporting god to take their place.

So with Graeme Smith who has scored 277 at Edgbaston and 259 at Lord's to join a small masterclass of batsmen. Now, even as South Africa attempt to dominate a series that critics thought they might lose 5-0, he has the chance to set out after the even bigger scores put together by the immortal Don.

There will be people in Australia who will always believe that The Don's record are privileged, to be kept apart and to have a "reserved" sticker plastered across their page in Wisden.

They will regard Smith, South African captain and left-handed opening batsman, as a rude, crude intruder and, I imagine, will already be plotting his downfall, not least because they do not want their special bit of history to go missing.

I hope their prayers are not answered. Smith has already broken one of the Don's records and by the end of the five Tests against England he is almost sure to have passed the Don's series record.

Smith is special, unique, a talent beyond calculation. But then so is anyone who makes double hundreds in successive Tests, who wipes out the Bradman record score by an overseas batsman at Lord's, who scores more than 600 runs in two Tests, who already threatens Bradman's long-standing series aggregate of 974 and who so obviously loves every second he spends at the crease.

Even if he makes noughts in every innings at Trent Bridge, Headingley and the Oval, Smith will still finish with an average of 62. That would in ordinary circumstances he called satisfactory for a lad at the start of his Test career.

He is captain of his country at 22 yet it appears to be no burden to him. Victory over England at the headquarters of cricket means he must have the respect of the rest of the team, although before the series began there were rumours of rifts in the dressing room and even open dissent at some of his decisions.

Smith is mature beyond his years and not a man to be trifled with as a glance at that prominent jaw will tell you. He is reminiscent of the children's comic character Desperate Dan who was so strong he lifted whole houses, ate cow pie (containing whole cows) and performed all sorts of stupendous feats of strength.

He is big, and broad and takes guard with a wide stance and hits the ball an enormous wallop. He does not score quickly but fresh to all the attention, keen to succeed both as batsman and captain, he has enormous amounts of stamina, an eye like an eagle searching for prey and the strength of 10.

"Not aesthetically pleasing," was one comment on his style and there are already plenty of pundits around forecasting that when Smith has been in the public eye a bit longer he will be reduced to a mere mortal and that he cannot expect to continue to make such big numbers when he comes up against Glenn McGrath and Co.

Let me remind you that Maurice Tate famously told Bradman at the end of the 1928-9 trip to Australia that he would not make many runs in England "if you continue to play with a cross bat all the time" and that Bradman had his ample revenge long before the end of the 1930 tour.

Bradman, of course, was small and wiry with the footwork of a Fred Astaire, who picked up the length of the ball at speed so that he was back for his favourite shot, the pull, before the ball had pitched. He did score rapidly. His double hundred at Leeds in 1930 was completed in 214 minutes, his 334 at Headingley in 1934 had fifty in 49 minutes, 100 in 99 minutes (out of 127). He was 105 at lunch, 220 at tea and 309 at the close of play. At the end of the series Bradman had scored 974 at an average of 139.14. His then world record first class innings of 452 came in 415 minutes.

Viv Richards, known as the Master Blaster and blessed with eyesight that could pick out a friend in the crowd from 100 yards, with fast hands and feet and the strength of a boxer, scored a Test hundred in 56 balls — on his home ground of Antigua too — that is still a record.

Another left-handed South African Graeme Pollock, whose stance and style have been compared to Smith's, made 125 out of 160 and hit 21 fours in two hours and 20 minutes of the Nottingham Test of 1965. The West Indian Lawrence Rowe smashed 302 off 430 balls with a six and 36 fours in 612 minutes; "an impeccable display of masterly batting" according to the Who's Who of Test Cricketers.

More recently we have had Brian Lara's 375, in my opinion the greatest innings of all the huge scores. Not only is it the highest but it was made off decent bowling — unlike Len Hutton's 364 against a tired and injury-hit Australian attack at the Oval in 1938 or Gary Sobers 365 against Pakistan bowlers crippled by injuries — on a slow if true pitch.

Mark Taylor, the Australian captain, declared when he had equalled Bradman's 334 in order to try to win the match; and Sanath Jayasuriya unluckily got out on 340; both in sight of Lara's record.

Note how many of these men are left-handers. Why are they the batsmen with the skill and the stamina to make scores beyond 300? Isn't it time a sports expert examined this interesting phenomena?

This era is also made unique by the speed with which sporting feats are flashed around the world.

Satellite television spreads the word and the pictures to every corner so that the village people of central India, the Samoan on his Pacific island and the cricketer living among baseball fans in central New York saw Smith batting at the same moment I watched him from the 21st century Press Box at Lord's.

It is not just the fans who benefit from this modern electronic marvel. Now there are no secrets among cricket's insiders. Wherever the game is played there are coaches with video machines who pressed the record button as soon as they realised that Smith might one day be in the sights of their bowlers.

I can imagine McGrath and his mates watching every move Smith made once their light duties against Bangladesh were finished. How can we get this batsman out? What are his weaknesses, where is he strong; does he as one England bowler told me, play the ball into "unusual areas?" Is it better to attack him or to cramp him up, to starve him of runs?

Smith's record means an enormous amount to a South African cricket community still in shock from the revelations about Hansie Cronje and his death; defeat in the World Cup and the sacking of Shaun Pollock; a series of bad results against Australia for all there was a time when the mathematicians if no-one with a genuine understanding of the game placed them at the top of the world.

After the end of the second Test at Lord's, when the ground was empty and there was time to make sober sense of what we had just seen, one famously named South African, called it a great day "for cricket, for the team, for Graeme Smith, for the nation which has been hurting." There was a tear in his eye and he was certainly caught up in the emotion of the moment as he added: "It is important for us to have a hero and we seem to have found one just when he was needed."

If so much can be put right by a single man then this impressive young captain is that man.

He stands 6ft 4in tall, and weighs in at 14 stone but he is as fast down the pitch as he needs to be. At the split second he hits the ball everything is in synch and the ball fairly flies to the boundary.

For a big man, some say rough and even agree on the description robust, he drives straight with precision.

Above all he has patience. He is ready to wait forever for the ball to hit.

Only time will tell if Smith — common name, unusual man — wipes out all the Bradman records. But at this moment, as he bestrides the game like a new Goliath, he seems set for the peak, able to aim for a career total beyond even Sachin's dreams and able to reduce the Bradman performances so that they can be measured in ordinary mortal terms.

On the final page of his biography of Bradman, Irvine Rosenwater quotes Dr. Johnson to prove how long the Bradman records may last. "Sir," observed Dr. Johnson, talking about Alexander Pope, the poet, "a thousand years may elapse before there shall appear another man with the power of versification equal to that of Pope." So, says Rosenwater, might one make a claim, too, about the batsmanship of Donald Bradman.

Rosenwater may be right, but I suspect there will be plenty of times in the next few years when we reach for that book of quotations to describe how long Smith's records will stand alone.

Top 10 Test aggregates

1. Donald Bradman (Australia) 974 (Australa vs England, 1930)

2. Walter Hammond (England) 905 (England vs Australia, 1928-29)

3. Mark Taylor (Australia) 839 (Australia vs England, 1989)

4. Neil Harvey (Australia) 834 (Australia vs South Africa, 1952-53)

5. Vivian Richards (West Indies) 829 (West Indies vs England, 1976)

6. Clyde Walcott (West Indies) 827 (West Indies vs Australia, 1954-55)

7. Gary Sobers (West Indies) 824 (West Indies vs Pakistan, 1957-58)

8. Donald Bradman (Australia) 810 (Australia vs South Africa, 1936-37)

9. Donald Bradman (Australia) 806 (Australia vs South Africa, 1931-32)

10. Brian Lara (West Indies) 798 (West Indies vs England, 1993-94)

Note:Graeme Smith, the South African captain, who has 621 runs from two Tests has a good chance of breaking into this list in the ongoing series against England.

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