'Never seen a stronger kid than Graeme Smith'

Tributes to the South Africa captain who will finish his international career today in Cape Town.

Former South Africa opener Jimmy Cook, who'd mentored Graeme Smith since his school days, remembers an intense kid focussed doggedly on playing cricket.

The first time I met Graeme Smith I thought he was an odd boy. He had come to one of the cricket clinics we ran in Johannesburg and was bowling in the nets when another kid asked him something. Graeme turned around and sternly told this kid, “Can you leave me alone? I’m bowling.” And this kid looked at him like, ‘who the hell are you?’

Even I was taken aback by Graeme’s reaction. He was just 12-years-old. When he batted, every time Graeme hit the ball he would look straight at me as if inquiring ‘Everything ok?’. At the end of the net, he came to me and asked, “What did you think? How did I do?” We spoke only cricket. Jeez, the practice finished and suddenly Graeme’s high-fiving everybody and playing and running around like a normal kid. If anything, he was a naughty little bugger. But while he was playing cricket, there was no one or nothing else that mattered except what he was busy doing. I have never met a more focused young man. Ever.

Graeme’s an out-and-out Jo’burg boy and moved to Cape Town only much later. He went to King Edward School, where I was coach. And when he was 16, I spoke with the Lions franchise guys insisting that we need to sign him now. The guy looked at me like I was crazy.

A year later, he was with South Africa U-19s and I had eight of the 10 franchises calling me repeatedly asking ‘what do we have to do to get him into our province?’

Mentally, I’ve never seen a kid stronger then Graeme. Play or miss his expression never changed. As a bowler you would wonder, did he play at that ball cause he doesn’t look worried at all.

That mentally-strong kid leaves the scene having captained his country for a record 109 Test matches and 150 ODIs. Such was his authority, Nick Said points out that Smith's retirement only weeks after Jacques Kallis' would leave South Africa shorn of leadership talent.

There have only been a handful of regular captains of the national side since readmission to international cricket in 1991 – Kepler Wessels, Hansie Cronje, Pollock and Smith.

Choosing the right man to be number five on that list will be crucial.

One-day skipper AB de Villiers has been groomed for the Test role and is likely take on the job but it is a big task for a player who at times has been the mainstay of the batting and also acts as wicketkeeper. But in truth, there are no other solid candidates.

McGrath and Smith during one of their contests. Smith batted like he led. Greg Baum writes, Smith's bulky presence at the crease gave a sense of permanance, and if he had any aches and pains, he was too tough to let them show. And what better instance of this than the time he chose to bat with a broken hand.

Of Graeme Smith, this can be said more accurately than of any other contemporary cricketer: he took block.

Tall and bulky, he filled the crease at the start of every South African innings of his time, obscuring the bowler's view of the stumps and the wicketkeeper's sight of the bowler, immediately creating the impression of permanence. Ingrained rather than gainly, deft as lumber, he moved as if armour-clad, and as if he needed a good oiling.

But there were never as many chinks as seemed likely, nor ever a loose screw. He hid technical limitations behind temperamental fortifications, perhaps better than anyone has. Getting him out called for a crusade. Always, his face was set in a kind of half-grimace, like a rugby front-rower about to pack down in a scrum. It was how he played his cricket. His in-team nickname is Biff.

Firdose Moonda writes about the rookie who gave it back to the best in the business: Glenn McGrath.

Glenn McGrath was the first man to dismiss Smith at that level and the Australian seamer was not going to let him forget it. McGrath spent the rest of that series sledging Smith, who took it bravely but was slowly losing patience. He wanted to respond but was not quite sure how. So he asked some of the senior players, including mischief-maker Mark Boucher for some help.

"A couple of us mentioned something he could say back but we did it as a joke," Boucher said. "Graeme went out there and said it. He just came back to us and said he didn't think it went too well."

In a candid interview with the now-defunct South African Sports Illustrated magazine two months later Smith revealed he asked McGrath if he was "constantly on his period," in retaliation. It was exactly the kind of thing that would irritate McGrath and Boucher and co. knew it. They did not know Smith could be ballsy enough to repeat those words. "That was Graeme, he had the character to front up. He walked the walk," Boucher said.

ALSO SEE: Graeme Smith - A Factfile | I have a young family to look after: Smith

Left-handed opener, who played his initial first-class cricket for Gauteng but soon moved to Cape Town at the age of 18 to play for Western Province.
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Getty Images | Photo by Staff / Clive Rose
Tue 4 Mar, 2014 11:30 AM IST