The new South African captain spells out his agenda

Published : Aug 09, 2003 00:00 IST

THE first Test between England and South Africa began with a triple century stand in 75 overs and ended in a stalemate as the England captain Nasser Hussain announced that he wanted to quit.


THE first Test between England and South Africa began with a triple century stand in 75 overs and ended in a stalemate as the England captain Nasser Hussain announced that he wanted to quit. A "tame draw" said the fresh-faced youth reading the sports news from the television set. He may have had the right word but it seemed inappropriate about a Test of so many dramatic twists and turns.

Even before the match started with Graeme Smith winning a decisive toss there had already been the controversy of team selection when England stuck to the tried and trusted and South Africa were forced to make late adjustments because Jacques Kallis had to stay at home with his dying father.

So the long partnership between Smith and Herschelle Gibbs who stole the early headlines with a century of wonderful attacking flair. Smith was still not out overnight and by the time he had declared for the first time in the match he had established himself as one of the supreme batsmen of the era.

Yes, at 22 Smith clearly has a great future as he races up the world rankings. He has already made three hundreds in his 11 Tests and each one of them has shown an appetite for runs that even Bradman might admire. He began with 200 against Bangladesh in East London and one might write that off as no more than was to be expected since Bangladesh are only to be called Test material by the kindest of people and, after all, he was playing at home.

Then came 151 off the Pakistan attack in Durban and you will say that Pakistan, who had relied on an ageing team and who were, in common with many another disappointed World Cup sides, in the process of rebuilding. Let us admit that at that point Smith still had to make his case.

There cannot be any doubt now after his 277 against England at Edgbaston. England had no excuses even though they too have taken advantage of the World Cup debacle to introduce a number of adjustments to their side. This attack was their full force and they cannot have any excuses.

Except the obvious one that they were up against a batsman who, like Bradman, like Viv Richards, like Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards who were both watching, like Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar, and like Michael Vaughan who was suffering alongside the rest of the England fielders, is special.

How special remains to be seen. Smith detractors pointed to the ugly, wide stance and reckoned that when he comes up against the best of the best — Australia at home, for instance — he will be found out.

Let's be cautious if that is our judgement. Remember Maurice Tate telling Bradman at the end of the 1928-9 series that he would have to play with a straighter bat in England. Bradman never did learn to play with a completely straight bat yet Tests in England were his most profitable source of runs and no-one needs reminding that when he retired, still using strokes that most people would call unorthodox, his average was just a touch short of 100.

The truth about Smith is that at the moment he makes contact with the ball everything is right. There were plenty of snooker experts who claimed Alex Higgins would not make it to the top because his cue action was so unorthodox but — despite all his faults, both playing and personal — Higgins won the world championship twice.

By the end of this Test, Smith had proved himself a champion batsman too and left us wondering what else he might achieve. His 277 was a magnificent tribute to his strength, his stamina and skill and if there had not been a rain interruption that wiped out the second day he might have had a look at Lara's world record, maybe even gone on to 400.

But, and here is one of the signs that says Smith is different, he preferred to go for his shots, put his side's needs before his own ambitions, and got out twice attempting to hit the ball into the crowd. Not many batsmen have done that at 277 and 85 with the temptations of more glory urging them to play a selfish innings.

Like Mark Taylor, another captain who declared when he might have gone on to overtake the best of Bradman and head for the Lara mark, Smith won himself a special place in the hearts of the spectators as well as the old cricketers who always gather when there is a Test in the offing.

We will see more of this young man.

There was another remarkable side to his innings. When he left the field after nine hours he took off his helmet and gave the crowd a series of waves that culminated in a pirouette. Of course it was not as graceful as the twirls you might see at the home of the Royal Ballet Company — Smith is around 6ft 3in, heavily built, not ballet material at all — but his face was still fresh, there was no sign of weariness, nor sweat, nor a desire to lie down and rest.

A dozen overs later he was on the pavilion steps waving his men in so that his bowlers could do their worst to a weary team who needed 595 for an innings lead and 395 to avoid the follow-on.

If Smith's innings had been a rollicking, rumbustious, blacksmith's innings what followed was sheer class although it in no way detracted from Smith's remarkable couple of days.

Vaughan played what he considers the best of his nine Test centuries. Like Smith he sees 100 as merely a wayside signpost on his way to greater scores and his 156, out of 408, was yet another sign of his determination to capitalise once he had established himself at the crease. In the middle we saw the usual collections of violent pulls, delicate cuts and those offside strokes with a full vertical bat. Cr�me de la creme.

A gutsy short innings of 41 by Ashley Giles ensured England saved the follow-on — and gave them a half chance of winning if Smith mistimed his second declaration and the weather stayed fine on the last day. It was a chance characterised by those shrewd chaps the bookmakers with a price of 300-1 — and once again Smith was batting as if his life depended on every run.

In total he made 362 runs in the Test, beating a 50-year record set by Bruce Mitchell, but although he declared his side's innings closed once again the weather grew worse with England 110 for one. In many ways it was an unsatisfactory match because it had lost the second day; but the description "tame" was still only apt for those whose cricket appreciation classes are in the future.

As Smith was trying to wheedle out Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick the rumours began to spread of a shock announcement, then that Nasser Hussain was ready to retire, then that his Test career was coming to a close.

For those of us who have watched every day of his captaincy, it was a shock but no surprise.

Hussain had been almost detached from his side throughout the long first day. He had lingered at his usual place close to his bowler at wide mid-on, but there was a lack of the intensity which has been the dominant part of his captaincy.

He had realised that the face of English cricket had changed, that his methods would not work as effectively with the youngsters as Vaughan's quieter, less vocal, more persuasive touches.

What agonies he must have gone through as he once again followed the instincts of his heart — which he has always worn so prominently on his sleeve that it might as well have been picked out in luminous paint — while watching Vaughan's successes in the one-day games and again when he tried to pick up the baton at training on the two days before the Test.

The best tribute I can pay to him is that he was quicker to see the big picture than the selectors. Sport is about change at the right moment; Hussain knew it was now and that although he could struggle on in charge and perhaps even use his knowledge and experience to win the series, it was time to step down.

So ends an era in which Hussain made not only his players but the rest of a cynical nation believe that by sweating blood his team could at least put up a fight against the best. When he arrived on the scene England were able to lose convincingly to New Zealand at home as they did in his first series in 1999.

They have not yet achieved the pinnacle he set for them - an Ashes triumph in Australia — but that is now within their grasp and Vaughan may be the captain to bring that success to fruition.

But whatever he achieves will be in part down to Hussain and it is as well for us to remember that now.

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