So long, Biff, South Africa never deserved you
Even in his retirement, Graeme Smith is still dividing public opinion. There is the “good riddance” camp and the “good luck” camp. In death of a career, there is often unity, but not so for Biff. ANTOINETTE MULLER pays tribute to the captain South Africa never deserved.
Wanting to captain a South African sports team is a stupid idea. You have to contend with politics, the public and the press. The politics are complicated, the public aren’t appreciative and the press are as quick to build you up as they are to knock you down. It’s an ambition reserved for few and something not many decide to aspire to.
Graeme Smith aspired to it. As a kid, he had his goals pinned on the fridge and one of them was to captain the South African cricket team.
For him, a job which would have been a pain in the arse for many was a privilege.
He took to the job over a decade ago, wet behind the ears. He stepped down on Wednesday, wet behind the eyes. In front of a packed press conference with his family watchfully sitting at the back, Smith delivered his final words as South Africa’s most decorated Test captain of all time. He had come a very long way from being the brash 22-year-old whose jaw seemingly never stopped moving. His presence, though, was as overpowering as ever.
With his worn down green cap, the same cap he has had from the start, and his jaw still in overdrive, Smith said farewell to the cricketing world while musing about everything from his dodgy technique to the diverse culture that has blossomed in the Proteas camp.
That same camp has grown up almost as much as the 22-year-old boy who wore a jumper that was too big for him. Smith has grown into that jumper now and the national cricket team is growing up, too. But growing up does not come without growing pains, and one of Smith’s biggest growing pains was his technique. Don’t grip like that, don’t stand like this, don’t, don’t, don’t was all he was ever told, but Smith thrived, despite his lack of technical nous.
When sportsmen are judged on aesthetics, and we’re not talking about shallow objectification here, it’s never going to be easy to make it when you’re an unorthodox weirdo. Graeme Smith made a career out of being unorthodox and won more fans who hated to watch him bat than ones who did.
With a grubby approach to batting, far removed from the textbook drives, pulls and forward defensive which elevated many great batsmen to legendary status, Smith cared not for how he got his runs, just that he got them.
And boy, did he get them, particularly against England and Australia. Not only did he amass 2,051 of his 9,265 Test runs against the English, he also accounted for three of their captains and engineered some of South Africa's most memorable wins on Mud Island.
He was great not just because of the records he smashed, but because he was everything a sportsman in South Africa shouldn’t be – and yet he wasn’t afraid to be it. As a captain he was sometimes conventional, but ballsy. He was brash and belligerent and had a fierce need for control which didn’t always sit well with the South African team management. He stamped his authority on the team right from the start, with Lance Klusener being the first of many to depart under his iron-fisted rule.
He could make tough decisions without wanting desperately to please everyone. He could make those decisions with confidence, knowing that he would be judged by the performances on the field. He made those decisions for over a decade and for him to last as long as he did, not only as a high-performing Test batsman, but as captain, is extraordinary. Even former English players turned journalists would hang on his every word and admit, perhaps somewhat jealously, that South Africa was very, very lucky to have a captain like Smith.
Smith had his faults, but not enough faults to explain the South African public’s disdain for him. Even in his retirement, there is an element of “good riddance” rather than “good luck”. It is not that he is vastly misunderstood, it’s just that many refused to understand.
Smith is a master of his craft, a dedicated captain and an astute student of the game, but that same master is also a matador, because he is so ruthless, almost aloof. He held a red rag to public opinion of him without caring much for the consequences. Instead of trying to canvass for public opinion, Smith always did what he thought was best and gave the country his all, despite the country perhaps not being quite ready for a brash leader of his kind quite yet.
In England, he is revered, celebrated and appreciated for his ability to make his hundreds memorable, despite many closing their eyes in disgust at his technique. It’s no wonder that he has opted to spend the last few years of his career with English County Surrey. Sure, the pay cheque that came with the gig would have played a part, but rather a pay cheque and a back pat than a pay cheque and your fellow countrymen turning their back on you.
It will only be in a few years’ time that South Africans will realise what they have lost, while crying into their Castle Lagers and desperately seeking a new scapegoat. With Smith’s retirement, another chapter closes on South African cricket, and it is not until history judges him that his greatness will truly be comprehended.
A prophet not honoured in his own land, a captain many teams would give their eye teeth for. A giant in stature, physique and a giant from whose shoulders the team and the cricketing world saw further, but many members of the public refused to.
So long, Biff, South Africa never deserved you. DM
Photo: South Africa's Graeme Smith celebrates his fifty during the second day of their first cricket test match against Pakistan in Johannesburg, February 2, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings