Sport

A maestro and matador, Graeme Smith starts a new journey

By Ant Sims 14 April 2013

On Wednesday, Graeme Smith will walk out as captain of English county Surrey. The way he is revered in England now is in total contrast to the perception of him in South Africa. A peculiar situation for such a successful captain - not that it matters. By ANT SIMS.

Almost 10 years to the day, a brash, confident and very young man was given the honour of captaining South Africa. He was crude, unrefined and, from a public perspective, generally unlikable.

He went somewhat unnoticed in his first two watches as captain, scoring just over 30 runs in two Tests against Bangladesh. He announced his arrival at the helm of the South African Test team just a few months later, though, scoring two double centuries in England as South Africa drew the five-match series in Blighty – and everybody suddenly took notice of the kid with  the captain’s armband.

Now Graeme Smith is back in England, and after seeing off two skippers and leading the Proteas to two consecutive series wins here, he’s arrived for a different reason: to take charge at Surrey. Instead of gallivanting around in India in colourful clothing, he’s in England to score bucket loads of runs: he averages 67.75 here, and has scored 1,355 runs in the country. During his previous county stint, with Somerset in 2005, he led them to the T20 title. He only played four first-class for the county that season, though, but racked up 472 runs – with a high score of 311.

Smith loves playing in England and he is, arguably, the highest-profile signing of the season. While many protest the death of the county game, for different reasons, Smith hopes his arrival at The Oval will bring something new to the game in England.

“Hopefully it’ll add value to the game. I’d love to think I’ll be able to perform well, and if I can help Surrey to be successful, then it’s good for the English game. It’s a club of huge stature and tradition, and English cricket needs a strong Surrey side. The club has outlined the fact that it wants to be successful, wants to win trophies, but also wants to produce players for England. If I can play a role in that, that’s good, and if I can bring more exposure to the first-class game, then great; I think it’s a form of the game that’s crucial for developing a high standard of cricketers. Especially from a youngster’s point of view, you want to be pushing them towards that,” Smith said.

It’s a mature perspective. And yet, for most South Africans, Smith never really grew up. They still perceive him as that same brash boy who, despite being so indomitable in his second tour (and in so many tours since then) the  general public still perceives him to be unlikable while, in Britain, he’s adored. Unorthodox as his technique might be, he is incredibly effective. Smith is a fierce player in the longer format of the game, and he is one of the most successful captains in the history of the game – certainly the most successful South African captain. With no Tests scheduled for South Africa until much later, Smith has alluded that his current priority is to stick with the county stuff. 

South Africa is due to take part in the Champions Trophy in June, and will then head to Sri Lanka for a ODI and T20 series. But Smith admits that he’s not quite sure where to from here.

“Obviously the Champions Trophy and national team stuff I’m not 100% sure about, but I’ll have that sorted out. With regards to the Sri Lanka tour, my wife is giving birth around that time,” Smith said.

The South African skipper also revealed in an interview with The Daily Mail that taking the armband was something he was doing as the tours came around.

“Captaincy for me is a tour-by-tour thing now. If I feel I can still add value and get the most out of the guys, I’ll continue doing the job. I don’t think about hanging on for another five years or anything like that. It’s just about how good can I be in that role for the team. If someone else wants to take on the pressure in a few years, I’m more than happy for them to take it,” the skipper explained.

One could read into those comments further and allude that Smith might have had it with the short format stuff. While he has said that he does want to take part in the IPL in the future if the opportunity presents itself, he’s not too fussed with where he is at the moment. And why should he be? He’s a successful Test player, a legendary captain, and he is just starting a family. The thrills and chills of the fast-paced life are probably losing their novelty, and Smith is looking for something far more stable. A three-year deal with Surrey is one step in that direction.

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. He is provocative and fearless, and even when he is on the backfoot, Smith will always find a way to rally some fight – whether that’s walking out to bat with a broken hand, or simply shrugging off criticism flung at him.

He has, despite adversity, conquered across the cricketing landscape, and it’s almost certain that more of the same can be expected from his stint at Surrey.  A lot can be gathered from his comments leading up to his debut, but one thing is certain: Smith has got the hand brake down and is easing into the last few phases of his career. Whether his approach to it pleases his critics or not is irrelevant, too, because the numbers – and there are many of them – speak for themselves. DM

Photo: South Africa’s Graeme Smith sits in the ground access tunnel at the Adelaide cricket ground before the third day’s play of the second test cricket match against Australia November 24, 2012.  REUTERS/Regi Varghese

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