It is nearing the end of the second day’s play at Newlands, Cape Town. Australia are firmly in control of the third and deciding test against South Africa. At the crease is the Australian captain Michael Clarke on a commanding 160. The Australian wicket-keeper Brad Haddin has just been caught at mid-off of the bowling of Jean-Paul Duminy.
In walks Mitchell Johnson. The first ball he faces from Duminy is wide down the leg side which he tries to play and the South African wicket-keeper Abraham de Villiers collects cleanly.
Duminy is excited and thinks that Johnson has been caught. The umpire is motionless. Duminy consults with de Villiers and decides to review the decision. Replays and technology clearly show that Duminy is correct and the decision is overturned. Johnson is out first ball and Duminy is on a hat-trick. But the over is complete and he will have to wait for his hat-trick ball.
If you are wondering why this passage of play sounds strange, maybe it is because there was no mention of the South African captain Graeme Smith. Indeed, Smith was off the field at the time. It had been a long and tiring second day on the field for South Africa and he had trudged off perhaps for a quick clean-up.
Smith returned before the start of the next over and was obviously happy with the two wickets and especially with the correct use of the review system as he had wasted a couple of reviews earlier in the Australian innings.
He walked up to de Villiers with a huge smile on his face. De Villiers tried to wave him away, seemingly joking. Little did he know at the time, de Villiers would get his joking wish within hours when Smith announced that he would be retiring from international cricket at the end of the test match.
As you can imagine, this decision came as a shock to many. Even though retirements have been in fashion over the last couple of years in the cricketing world, at 33, most people thought Smith had a few more good years left in him. The timing was a bit strange as well – Smith announced his plans during the deciding test match. Many would think he was jumping before being pushed after having had a tough time with the bat in recent months.
However, his mind was made up and all that was left was for South Africa to give him a spirited send off and try and secure a fighting draw in the test. They performed poorly in their first innings and were set an almost impossible target of 510, or perhaps a more realistic but still daunting target of batting for just over four sessions.
They came within 27 balls of the latter, which would have been one of the greatest draws in history. A draw in the deciding test would have secured a drawn series. But Australia fully deserved the series and kept fighting until they finally won.
Australia did not win this test match by 245 runs as will be written in the score books; they won it by 27 balls. The way South Africa fought in the last innings to try and save the match perfectly epitomises Smith’s cricketing career – record-breaking, determined, confident and patient.
Smith took up the captaincy in 2003 following Shaun Pollock’s resignation after a failed World Cup campaign jointly held on home soil. At the time, South African cricket was in turmoil and a leader was sought to rebuild the team.
There were other, more experienced options, namely Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis, who consequently shared great relationships both on and off the field with Smith.
However, up stepped Smith at the tender age of 22. It was a gamble, but one that has led to him captaining South Africa for over a decade, breaking many records in the process both as a batsman and as a captain. The two that stand out the most for me are most runs scored in fourth-innings wins (1141 at an average of over 87) and most tests won by a captain (53 out of 109 tests).
For all his achievements and records broken, Smith had his own unique leadership and batting styles. He was a father-figure to many in the South African dressing room and an individual you would want to fight for. He led by example and was the sponge of the team, soaking up immense pressure both on and off the field.
Respect was a crucial ingredient in his repertoire. Even though he was disliked by many in the cricketing world, he was always respected wherever he played because he gave the game and everyone involved in it the utmost respect.
Take the third and final test against Australia in Sydney in 2009. South Africa had already secured an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series. In the first innings, Smith received a brute of a ball by Johnson which broke his left hand. He retired hurt on 30 and went straight to hospital for examinations.
In the second innings, South Africa were set a target of 376 to win. When the ninth South African wicket fell, the score was 257. Australia were celebrating as no one expected Smith to walk out and bat with a broken hand, especially since the series had already been won. But to everyone’s surprise, out stepped Smith. This was the character of the man.
Smith faced 17 painful deliveries and guided South Africa to within 11 deliveries of securing a famous draw. He was unfortunately bowled by Johnson and Australia won the match. Smith was rightfully given a standing ovation and lauded for his courage.
Every team goes through a transition period and generation change. Moving forward, even though Smith has left South African cricket at probably their highest peak, I feel that they are on a knife-edge. They could easily slip far down the slope they have taken so long to climb if they are not careful.
I would offer the captaincy to either de Villiers, who is already the one-day international captain, or to Francois du Plessis, the current Twenty20 captain. However, with de Villiers already at 30 and du Plessis turning 30 later this year, a new young leader needs to be groomed. With South Africa winning the Under-19 World Cup this year in Dubai, there is a pool of talent to choose from.
On a personal note, Smith as an individual has been a role-model and a hero. The way he has led his professional life and always strived to better himself and others around him has been an enthralling journey to follow and learn from. Thank you for your services to South Africa and cricket as a whole; but perhaps more importantly, thank you for inspiring a generation of young individuals like myself.
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