Graeme Smith pulls

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

© Getty Images
17

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

 

RELATED ARTICLES

 

LOGIN TO POST YOUR COMMENTS

  • POSTED BY Bijendra on | November 9, 2014, 1:23 GMT

    I still have memories of the famous 438- run chase by the Proteus agnst Oz.. if Gibbs was the man to take South Africa closer to the total..it was Smith who actually was the main architect of tht chase..it was hia 55- ball 90 runs which really gave a possiblity tht it could be chased.. and another tyme chasing agnst West Indies in a T20 game when the format has just started..South Africa had an equation of geeting some 200 + runs to win..and it was Smith whose inotoal bursting gave the sign to chase tht total.. SO in my opinion, yes, he was unwatchable if u are at receiving end.. but quite a treat to watch when u r watching from other side..and he would provide such a rhythem that u just dont want him to get out..

  • POSTED BY Chandraprakash Chindam on | November 8, 2014, 22:51 GMT

    It helps the reader when you provide the links to the scorecards of the matches you refer to.

  • POSTED BY John on | November 7, 2014, 6:19 GMT

    Graeme Smith wasn't unwatchable if you're someone who enjoys watching the poms get smashed. I, for one, loved watching him bat, especially against the Poms. LOL!

  • POSTED BY Altaf on | November 6, 2014, 21:27 GMT

    Smith had solid commitment and confidence.

  • POSTED BY Andre on | November 6, 2014, 10:34 GMT

    In his own words - 'Ugly but efficient'. He certainly didn't stand back for anyone. Great South African Captain

  • POSTED BY smith on | November 6, 2014, 7:53 GMT

    Unbelievable character incredible concentration and determination no one can match

  • POSTED BY Vinooth on | November 6, 2014, 1:11 GMT

    Great player, I liked the innings he played against Australia in Perth. He took the game from Australia in one session. It shows his confidence and stood like great champion.

  • POSTED BY Adhithya on | November 5, 2014, 19:20 GMT

    A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way. --John Maxwell.

    Nothing defines Graeme Smith more than the Sydney test when he came out to bat with a fractured finger... people could clearly see him wincing in pain and he almost pulled out a draw for his team. A leader of men and a Champion among Champions. Cricinfo termed him as the bravest cricketer that day (if I am not mistaken).

  • POSTED BY Cricket on | November 5, 2014, 10:09 GMT

    Call him ugly or anything you like but he is right up there with some of the legends of the game in terms of his overall contribution as an outstanding captain & a doughty player. Always loved seeing him play hard and fair. His was a classic example of taking the game to the opposition and this when he was handed the reins at a very tender age. Deserves all adulation!!

  • POSTED BY Gabrial Gsm on | November 5, 2014, 5:33 GMT

    "He might have battled like a lobster with one pincer much bigger than the other, but he scored runs when it mattered" .. Nice article on biff , always awesome to watch his batting . Wish you all the best for rest of your life BIFF

  • POSTED BY Billy on | November 4, 2014, 12:08 GMT

    One of the greatest in the South African game! Dogged, determined, ugly and oh so effective, leading SA thru a great period. He will be missed.

  • POSTED BY Taufique on | November 4, 2014, 0:30 GMT

    Ugly but deadly efficient!!!

  • POSTED BY Cricinfouser on | November 3, 2014, 15:39 GMT

    He was some captain!! Ugly but endearing! He didn't talk the talk... he clobbered the opponents into submission!

  • POSTED BY Thuso on | November 3, 2014, 12:11 GMT

    Alwasys enjoyed watching old Biff...the grit and the ugly technique made him. Awesome article!!!

  • POSTED BY Brigitte Cowden on | November 3, 2014, 7:30 GMT

    I flew to London that day to watch Biff and Neil bat. LOVED EVERY SECOND OF IT. The more the POMS around me moaned about the boredom, the better it was.

  • POSTED BY Vishwas on | November 2, 2014, 14:01 GMT

    He was always there when the team needed him..scored tons of runs when required, a very rare talent in that respect.

  • POSTED BY Rajesh Suresh Chand on | November 2, 2014, 1:46 GMT

    I have enjoyed watching in TV the big chase of 434 against Australia in the ODI series decider in SA. In fact I did not miss even a single ball. It was that entertaining. Yes, Gibbs played an unbelievable innings but i believe it was smith's innings which set the stage for SA. His belief as a captain that they can chase down 434 made SA achieve that chase. I think there are not many captains who would think the same in that situation. Tough Guy and amazing leader !!!