Graeme Smith pulls

Smith of Gibraltar: in 21 Tests against England, he averaged 57 and scored seven hundreds

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Hate to Love

Glum, grim, gutsy

Graeme Smith was an unwatchable, immovable nuisance; he was also a terrific match-winner

Jonathan Wilson

It was at Lord's in July 2008 that I first began to realise how much Graeme Smith irked me. He had inserted England, who made 593 for 8 declared, thanks to big centuries from Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell. England had then bowled South Africa out for 247, with only four batsmen making double figures. England enforced the follow-on and, at the end of the third day, South Africa were 13 for no loss. When I trotted along to Lord's on the Sunday morning, my main concern was whether, given I was paid by the day, South Africa would be able to stretch it into the Monday.

It was warm and sunny and the mood was one of great optimism. England were hammering them. It was true that they had recent experience of failing to finish off games against Pakistan and Sri Lanka at Lord's, but they had two days to take ten wickets. Victory felt inevitable.

By lunch, it felt a lot less inevitable. Smith and Neil McKenzie were still in. They had added just 54 in the morning. By mid-afternoon, I wandered out of the press box, overwhelmed by the torpor. I met a couple of friends and we sat in the glare of the Edrich Stand, watching nothing much happen. The day had grown sultry, the air thick with boredom. By tea, they had reached 128.

It was unwatchable. Some batsmen are graceful in defence, some habitually skittish so the possibility of a wicket is always there. Smith was neither. (McKenzie was just as annoying, but at least he had quirks like taping his bat to the dressing-room ceiling; and at least with him there was a sense that this was a moment of rare achievement, that he wouldn't be back for the rest of time to ruin cricket with his bottom hand and his bloody-minded temperament.) Smith just batted. Glumly, grimly, interminably. Was even he enjoying it? Bat up, front foot forward, back shoulder slightly round, weight back, shovel into the leg side. Again, and again, and again. A few years ago, Matthew Hoggard had made it seem a flaw, trapping him lbw repeatedly, but the method had become dourly effective.

Eventually Smith fell for 107 in the second over with the new ball, top-edging a pull off Jimmy Anderson to Pietersen at point. Poor Billy Bowden was so startled that he forgot Anderson's first delivery had been a wide and called a five-ball over, but you couldn't blame him if he had nodded off. Smith's 107 had taken 207 balls, but it had felt like ten times that.

He might have battled like a lobster with one pincer much bigger than the other, but he scored runs when it mattered

On his first tour of England, he had been a nuisance, but at least then he had piled on vast quantities of runs, scoring two double-tons and seeming so competent that run-out looked the best way of dislodging him. This time he had just been there. Watching him bat had been like watching bowlers whang the ball repeatedly off an unremarkable lump of rock.

McKenzie went on to make 138 (off 447 balls) and Hashim Amla also got a ton by the time the game eventually expired at some point late on Monday. It was Smith, though, who stuck in the mind: so dull, so ugly, so good. This had been anti-cricket; it was as though somebody had coached Smith by showing him a video of David Gower and telling him to do the opposite.

And it was when that thought occurred to me that I began to feel a sense of unease. Hadn't I, after all, spent the late-'80s and early-'90s railing against the style-over-substance ideology that seemed to prevail in so much of English cricket? Hadn't I rallied, in those days of my most puritanical functionalism, to the Goochist cause? Doesn't it continue to pain me that Gower finished with a higher Test average than Graham Gooch (easy when you're not opening, of course)? So what was my problem with Smith? It felt terribly like I was being hypocritical.

In retrospect, it was two Tests later that the transformation began. His 154 not out at Edgbaston as South Africa chased down 281 was undeniably magnificent. The next highest score in South Africa's top six was 27.

At the time, though, I was still in denial. I enjoyed the 2010 tour when he was out cheaply three times in the first two Tests and I most certainly didn't enjoy that 183 at Newlands. But slowly I became reconciled.

I think it was his fourth-innings ton against Australia at Newlands the following year that turned me. Australia had made 284 thanks to Michael Clarke's brilliant 151, when, you'll remember, wickets went in an almighty tumble: South Africa were bowled out for 96 and Australia for 47. When Jacques Rudolph was out for 14 with South Africa 27 for 1, 23 wickets had gone down for 181 runs and South Africa were still 209 runs short.

Smith went on the attack. It should have been one captain's game, but it became the other's: 101 not out in 140 balls. Amla also got a ton, but this, again, was Smith the immovable, his belief, his capacity to get the best out of the situation, which nurtured the partnership.

It says everything for his mental strength that his average in the fourth innings of games was 51.96 against an overall average of 48.25. He might have battled like a lobster with one pincer much bigger than the other, but he scored runs when it mattered. He took moderate technique and through power of will made his team draw or win games they should have lost.

And now that it's all over, and I don't actually have to watch him again, I can admit that a part of me rather admired it.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. @jonawils

 

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