'Biff' Smith: International man of mettle

2020-04-17 16:16
Graeme Smith
Graeme Smith (Gallo Images)

It is still anything but his proven, specialist area of expertise ... there will be many fatiguing hurdles to negotiate.

QUIZ | How well do you really know Graeme Smith?

But if Graeme Smith, finally confirmed on Friday as Cricket South Africa's full-time director of cricket after a drawn-out saga, transfers his indisputable playing-career aura into the job, he will be three-quarters of the way to making a success of the appointment.

His indelible "been there, done that" credentials will stand him in excellent stead, only helping to give him an intimate appreciation of what makes the country's premier-tier cricketers, especially, tick - while fully knowledgeable that his responsibilities stretch to various other levels as well.

Now 39, and some six years into retirement as a legendary Proteas captain and opening batsman, he boasts a voluminous total of 17 236 runs for the national cause across the three formats, the vast majority of them during his staple presence for more than a decade as captain, which featured some landmark-posting heights around the planet as well as some inevitable, deflating traumatic episodes and periods ... all of them part of the intriguing tapestry that is life experience.

I very vividly recall the first time I saw Smith play live in national colours, having only previously witnessed a handful of his earlier, set-out appearances at top flight, that late summer of 2001/02, on television.

My father-in-law was visiting from the UK and I took him to the consolation, last of seven scheduled one-day internationals at Newlands against South Africa’s old adversaries Australia, then around the height of a protracted golden era for them.

Consolation? Oh, very much so: the Aussies were already 5-0 up, with one washout, and seeking a rub-it-in clean sweep of all the completable games in the series.

Despite South Africa's more collective pickle, I was enthusing, as we walked to the ground on a chilly, damp autumnal Capetonian afternoon about qualities I believed I had already spotted in the rookie Smith, then only 21 and rather more pencil-slim than he would become in later years.

The gist of it was telling the old man, if he was even listening properly, that there was a special steeliness and resilience about his body language ... even while advising that he was consummately already NOT one of the more elegant figures (sometimes quite horribly so, in career-long mini-spells where he laboured to get those feet moving suitably adroitly) of left-handed stroke-play.

It was one of those patience-testing occasions where persistent drizzle badly delayed the start of the day/nighter, but then just when abandonment seemed likely, the clouds parted sufficiently to allow a curtailed, 39-overs-a-side contest.

Ricky Ponting won the toss, probably anticipating a bit of immediate "juice" to extract by his lethal pace spearheads Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee, but the host nation, with plenty of pride on the line, instead caressed their way tenaciously to what would eventually prove a winning (eureka!) tally of 249 for seven: and at the fulcrum of that thrust was the callow Smit, with a purposeful 73 at almost a run and ball.

It was a final tick, for what it was worth, in my mental "book": this kid was going to make it. (Nor is there anything wrong in having the luxury of chortling "See? I told you so" to your father-in-law.)

My favourite "Biff" innings subsequently? Well, there's that glaringly obvious pair of double centuries in back-to-back Tests as novice skipper on English soil (277 at Edgbaston, 259 Lord’s) in 2003 to chew on, and then that iconic bid as last man, with a broken hand, to try to save a dead-rubber Test - the drought-breaking series already in SA's bag - at Sydney against thunderbolt Mitchell Johnson and company.

But top of the pile, in my view, was the thoroughly ballsy, concentration-laden and match and series-winning unbeaten 154 in the pivotal second innings against England on a square-turning Birmingham track in 2008.

I felt for all money that the Proteas were doomed, at 93/4 in pursuit of 281, but Smith combined quite amazing obduracy with bursts of savage pulling and cutting to the ropes (when pretty rare opportunities presented themselves) to keep blood-seeking left-arm spinner Monty Panesar and others at bay before taking South Africa down the final straight to a rousing triumph.

Fittingly, he was assisted in those priceless finishing touches by long-time colleague and wicketkeeper Mark Boucher, with whom he will now have extremely close dealings as head coach of the national side.

My dealings with Smith have lessened considerably in recent years, following a shift into a more multisport-themed journalistic role, but it was nothing short of a pleasure to have had numerous such experiences in his earlier, character-defining years.

As editor of the former SA Sports Illustrated magazine, for example, I commissioned a feature in which Smith was prepared to spill the beans on the extent and nature of (already controversial, then) Australian sledging.

There was a considerable reaction from that country itself, as I fielded calls from reporters and radio presenters seeking confirmation, among other things, that Smith had been quoted accurately.

I spoke to Smith even as the dust hadn't yet begun to settle, fearing he might have got cold feet to some degree and come up with that hoary old goat of having been "quoted out of context" ... but not a word of it; he stuck resolutely and unapologetically and admirably to his guns.

I was deeply grateful.

He was always a willing participant, too, when we required time-demanding - half-day, really - cover shoots with him, involving stylists, makeup artists and neurotic-about-the-detail photographers; his patience and good humour seldom if ever waned.

Those were the now sadly faded days, too, when you might get to spend unusually quality time with active, high-profile national sportspeople, nowadays much more nervously "managed".

Smith was among a quartet of Proteas - also including Boucher, Makhaya Ntini and Neil McKenzie - with whom I and one or two others from the magazine spent two full days at a Wild Coast location, where they took part in our then-annual, major vehicle brand-sponsored "Ruff-Stuff Challenge".

It was, quite genuinely, barrel-loads of fun.

One, who shall remain nameless (shh, it may just have been an ever-competitive gloveman ...) rolled his 4x4 in a donga, harmlessly enough at slow speed on a technical section, but requiring him to determinedly, trademark defiantly jog a few kilometres to the finish to complete a reasonable time for the exercise.

And when it came to some sort of lighter-vein, greasy-pole challenge back near headquarters, there was great guffawing - Smith is quite unafraid to laugh at himself - as the big, ever so slightly ungainly opener found that considerably more of a headache than the others.

I wouldn't be so idiotic as to brazenly insist - based primarily on evidence of character and performance from his only partly relevant playing career - that Graeme Craig Smith WILL make a huge success of this new job.

Nor will he at this fledgling point, you'd imagine: it requires a realist, among other hallmarks, to assume a post like this one.

All I know for certain is that he has the jaw for it.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    csa  |  proteas  |  graeme smith  |  cricket


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