Worldly-wise & secure

Graeme Smith has already done enough to be remembered as a defining figure in South African cricket. What he achieves from here will determine if he lines up in the pantheon of all-time greats, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Graeme Smith was world cricket’s most influential man in 2008. He didn’t spawn the IPL, but he completed the toppling of Australia from its high perch and made his own one of Test cricket’s most obscure but coveted records. In so doing, he challenged the perception of his captaincy as one lacking imagination and made batting ugly fashionable.

To truly comprehend the enormity of Smith’s achievement, however, a broadly-sketched history lesson is in order. South African cricket teams since readmission have been a bit of a puzzle. They’ve consisted of tough, uncompromising men who yielded to no one; only, when it really counted, they shrank. Through the mid-1990s and the 2000s, Australians took great delight in calling South Africans ‘wannabe Australians’. Series between the countries were hyped as gladiatorial contests, but, barring one, they were the equivalent of a Madison Square Garden main event that lasts as long as the ring entrance. As if all the talk about being chokers wasn’t enough for an insecure cricket public, the match-fixing scandal left South Africans embarrassed, hurt, and disillusioned.

It was at this time — March 2003, to be exact — that a 22-year-old Smith took charge of the national team, entrusted not just with making South Africa the best side in the world, but also a side his countrymen could be proud of. It was a tricky mandate, particularly considering all the attendant issues that seem to dog the South African administration, but in five years Smith has achieved just that. Most importantly, he has marched to his own drum beat while doing it, making several unpopular decisions along the way — decisions only the most brazenly confident of men can make. He was reportedly hated in Natal for quite some time following his treatment of Lance Klusener, a cult hero there. He has also been criticised for having a clique within the team, comprising its top performers who grew dangerously comfortable in their positions.

But Smith has endured, evolving into a calm, formidable cricketer, who at 27 is far removed from his early days of testy naivete and on course to becoming a national icon. It seems difficult to separate the identities of Smith the batsman and Smith the captain — strange because it isn’t terribly difficult in the case of most good-to-great batsmen who have led their sides. In part this is because one has rarely existed without the other. Indeed Smith says he can’t recall a time since the age of 12 when he hasn’t been captain. But largely this is due to the unobtrusiveness that characterises both facets.

Smith’s batting first came to notice when he made back-to-back double-hundreds in England soon after taking charge of the side. They were notable in that they were made primarily with one stroke — the biff to leg whatever the line. The mechanics of Smith’s left-handed batsmanship and the quality of his eye made this a profitable method: the 6ft 4in frame sank on a wide-footed stance, preventing any great movement of the feet, thus requiring greater control from the bottom hand; Smith’s split grip, top and bottom hand separated on the handle, further encouraged it. But the inherent risk of the method, which depends so much on hand-eye co-ordination, suggested it would be severely tested, and Smith has had terrible phases against left-armers and bowlers swinging it into his pads.

Although Smith has added to his game, developing a greater range of strokes, improving his balance and play against spin, his greatest strength remains his fixity of purpose under pressure. Little wonder then that Smith holds the record for the most runs in successful fourth-innings chases — a highly coveted badge of honour for handling duress. In 2008, he sealed South Africa’s first series win in England with an unbeaten 154 pursuing 281 and set up the record chase in Perth with another century.

The first effort came despite a badly strained back, the second in spite of a tennis elbow. These runs moreover have come at a fair clip — his career strike-rate of over 60 ranks among the best for batsmen averaging over 50.

Smith, the captain, is a curious creature. He has considerable physical presence and a reputation as a strongman, but for all his toughness, he got punked by a verbal barrage from Stephen Fleming in New Zealand. Smith then ran his mouth in Australia, and returned looking like a goof. But he learned from the experiences, and the desperation that drove him settled. The Smith currently in Australia is a worldly-wise leader, secure in his ability and method. He has benefited from the presence of the great Jacques Kallis, whose stability and all-round skills allow Smith a greater degree of tactical flexibility. He hasn’t quite dispensed with the regimented South African method of wearing an opposition down, but the quality of his bowlers allows him to indulge the odd flutter these days.

That adage about a captain being no better than his team isn’t entirely right; he is, in fact, no better than his bowling unit. Attacking captains — they are the best kind — know all too well that the batting can be skimped on, and a competitive score will often be made, but compromise on the bowling and one may as well not turn up. Australia’s batting might be arthritic, but a lot of Ricky Ponting’s captaincy worries have to do with the quality of the bowlers he commands.

Smith’s success as captain has been driven by the coming together of a varied, forceful bowling line-up, marked by the rise of Dale Steyn. In his last 20 Tests, Steyn’s blend of velocity and swing have fetched an incredible 118 wickets — that’s nearly six wickets every Test. There’s the feeling that Makhaya Ntini has tapered away in the last couple of years, but his strike rate hasn’t suffered. Although some of it has to do with a rich spell against Bangladesh, he remains a striker at home. Morne Morkel has been bothered by injury and a lack of sustained intensity, but when fit and eager, his pace and lift complement Steyn and Ntini’s methods. Kallis is a valuable man to have as the fourth seamer, for his heavy, swinging deliveries are effective against the tail. Smith has done particularly well to persuade Kallis to bowl.

Smith’s smartest acquisition has been Paul Harris, which might seem like a lot of puff if one were to chance upon the left-arm spinner in the midst of a spell. Harris’s stock delivery appears insipid at best, and as Mark Taylor joked on air during the Test series, he rarely gets one to go off the straight. But Harris does just enough to prevent the batsman from consistently lining him up: subtle over-spin from a tall frame; minute changes in position on the crease; plenty of bluff. Harris’s 12 wickets at 20.66 in two Tests were instrumental in South Africa winning its first series in Pakistan, and his control and feistiness over the last two years have fetched him several big-name scalps at important moments.

For Smith, the difficult phase begins now (was it a forewarning that he fractured his left hand’s little finger in the third Test in Sydney?). Captains have a sell-by date, and Smith has achieved most of what there is to achieve as skipper. Staying on top moreover is often tougher than merely displacing the leader. Smith has already done enough to be remembered as a defining figure in South African cricket. What he achieves from here will determine if he lines up in the pantheon of all-time greats.

(Statistics till the end of the Boxing Day Test.)