Being the number one team in Tests is not easy and holding on to that position is definitely not a walk in the park. However, after mauling Pakistan in the 2nd Test at Dubai, South Africa seems to be at ease wearing the crown of being the kings of Test cricket.
The last time South Africa lost an away Test series was way back in 2006 against Sri Lanka and since then, the Proteas have travelled twice to India, twice to the UAE to face Pakistan, twice down under, twice to the English shores and once to New Zealand, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean each but has not lost a single series.
In fact, they are on a roll of 13 consecutive undefeated Test series.
Since their re-admission into Test cricket in 1992, South Africa has always been a strong side. They have always had the depth and the quality, but the way this team has been steam rolling opponents on foreign soil, the number one tag looks safe with them for some to come.
It’s only fair because the Proteas are perhaps the only team that has all their bases covered. They have a solid batting unit that can score runs all over the globe and a bowling attack that can create havoc on any kind of surface.
Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis are equally competent in handling pace and spin while their fast bowling unit comprising of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander can blow oppositions away on the flattest of tracks. The only chink in their armour was that in the spin department, but the rise of Imran Tahir and the steady performances of Robin Peterson have veiled that as well.
However, the biggest factor of South Africa’s domination in the Test circuit has been the strong and pragmatic leadership of Graeme Smith.
Just like a great book, the world of cricket is filled with different characters. If the Chris Gayles and the Shane Warnes add colour to the game, the ones like Sachin Tendulkar and Wasim Akram aspire brilliance. But there is another set of cricketers who slip under the radar, stay out of the lime light yet add enormous strength to the game of cricket.
It’s easy to be poetic about batsmen who capture your imagination by caressing the ball with their velvet-tipped willows and draw a flurry of adjectives with every stroke they play, but it’s hard to describe a batsman who sticks to the crude way of bludgeoning the ball.
It’s great to write about the perfect stance of Rahul Dravid, but how do you define someone who crouches in his stance, with his feet on either side of the crease and well apart from each other?
How do you describe a left-hander who lacks the inherent grace of a southpaw and the silken Sangakkara-ish touch yet goes on to score four double hundred and boasts a career average of almost 50 in Test matches?
You describe him as Graeme Smith – a dogged fighter who makes most of his limited talent to earn his place in cricket’s history. He belongs to a genre of cricketers whose game revolves more around brutal effectiveness rather than beautiful execution.
For us Indians, Smith is widely known as Zaheer Khan’s “bunny”. He has had enormous problems in negotiating the Indian left-armer and has often fallen flat in front of his mastery.
But Graeme Smith is much more than that. He is the first captain to lead a team in one hundred Tests and is the only captain to score 8000 plus runs while leading an international cricket team.
He went past 9000 runs in Test cricket, has 27 tons and no South Africa batsman has hit more scores of 200-plus than Smith. He also holds the distinction of scoring the most number of away Test runs as a captain.
Staggering, isn’t it?
Whenever we talked about South Africa, the fiery pace of Allan Donald or the brilliance of Jonty Rhodes has always dominated the discussions. Even now, the experts and the fans hardly look beyond Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn and AB de Villiers, but Smith in his own rights has become a giant in South African cricket.
There are quite a few reasons for that as well. His batting is anything but eye pleasing – an oft-heard portrayal of Smith’s batting is that it’s slow and unattractive. His stance is awkward, his movements clumsy and the overabundance of protective gear that he dons makes him look more like a Robocop rather than a batsmen.
All true. Smith doesn’t have the finesse, neither is he blessed with the gift of timing and when you have the fluent Hashim Amla or the adventurous AB de Villiers batting at the other end, Smith’s slog sweeps and hard jabs through the midwicket certainly aren’t the most picturesque sights.
Even his captaincy lacks flair. He’s definitely not as “cool” as MS Dhoni and neither does he have the tactical acumen of a Michael Clarke. More often than not, one finds him reacting to a situation while at times, he looks bereft of ideas (remember England’s fight back in Lord’s in 2012?).
But then again, Smith has his own ways of handling things. With him, you get what you see and one can hardly blame him for that. Captaincy was forced onto him at a tender age of 22, with him being only 8 Test matches and 22 ODIs old. Taking over a broken side from Shaun Pollock after the 2003 debacle, he knew only one way to lead – from the front and that’s what he did.
After taking over the reins, he went on an amazing run of form that saw him play two record-breaking innings. However, things went south the very next year as South Africa went into a free fall, losing ten Test matches in a row. The defeats caused a major rift in the team and young captain saw some serious in-fighting among the Proteas’ ranks.
Any captain would have crumbled, but not Smith. Just like his steely resolve during batting, he fought back, got rid of the players who were a threat to the team’s morale and started rebuilding. From thereon, South Africa went on an upswing and more importantly held on to it.
That period saw South Africa rise to the number one spot in ODIs and also witnessed the epic against Australia where Smith’s side chased down a record breaking 434. Although Herschelle Gibbs played the defining innings, Smith whirlwind essay of 90 from 55 balls at the top blunted the Aussie attack.
There were failures as well. South Africa was skittled off the ODI perch by Australia and they failed yet again in their pursuit of a major ICC trophy when they were knocked out of the 2007 World Cup.
Despite the disappointments, Smith continued with his counter punching methods and moulded the Proteas into a world beating Test unit. Smith became the first captain to lead South Africa to win a series in Australia in 2008. In 2012, his team fell England from the numero uno position in Test cricket and in the process, Smith, unintentionally, became responsible to seal the fate of three English captains.
There’s immense talent in the Proteas’ tank and no one ever doubted their ability. They have the flair of Amla, the solidity of Jacques Kallis, the spunk of de Villiers, the fire of Steyn and the madness of Tahir, but the steel of Graeme Smith holds the framework together for the machine to work flawlessly.
That’s the greatest achievement of Graeme Smith. Even after such remarkable stats at the Test level, his name will never feature in the “all the greats” discussions, but the stamp of authority that he has already left on South African cricket will always be a talking point in times to come.
South Africa is a country that has been blessed with natural talent but the Proteas have also been cursed with a tradition of in-fighting, politics and a quota system. It’s easy to captain a side that has Dale Steyn running in at 140 clicks an hour, but it’s very difficult to lead a nation that lets its economic and political issues percolate into its sporting culture.
Smith, with his upfront and strong leadership, created an atmosphere of unity and oneness that has helped in extracting that bit extra out of the entire squad. It’s one thing to have Hashim Amla and Imran Tahir play for your side, but it’s an entirely different thing to make them work hand in hand with Philander and Peterson.
That’s why when Smith says that his team should get more respect, the cricket world should doff their hats off in acknowledgement because Graeme Smith has built this side over the last decade, bit by bit. He had a tough legacy to follow, but just like his unattractive yet gutsy batting, he has punched his way to success.
He may not be the greatest to watch, but Graeme Smith is about setting examples. Be it facing Mitch Johnson with a broken hand or scripting a marathon comeback with yet another determined double hundred in the UAE heat, Smith had done it all with a square jawed resolve.
After all, they don’t call him the “Biff” for nothing.