One hundred Tests as a player is achievement enough, but to captain a side in as many is quite incredible and speaks to the mental fortitude of arguably the most polarising captain (player, even) in South African sport – Graeme Smith.
Taking a look at Smith’s figures as a Test batsman – 26 centuries, 37 half-centuries, 8700 runs at an average of 49.15 – it is immediately evident that he is amongst the best who have ever played the game. Take a gander at his accomplishments as captain and he is all the more impressive.
Yet, to read the comments on myriad articles – on this site and many others – over the past ten years since Smith was first given the job, you would think he were rubbish. Smith has a legion of supporters, of course (me among them), but bizarrely, despite his wealth of achievements at the highest level, he has many detractors who line up to spew vitriol on the odd occasions that he fails.
I say bizarre, because for a nation that puts so much emphasis on sporting success, Smith gets a hell of a lot of stick when you consider just how successful a captain he has been. Back-to-back away series wins against England and Australia sit on top of the heap, but there have been many more – the 434 win comes to mind.
Yet, while the tide of supporters seems to be growing with each passing Test victory, there are still those who choose to rubbish his accomplishments. “Arrogance” is a label Smith has had to contend with since he took the job. Much of that stems from his early years as captain of the Proteas when ‘Biff’ was never short of a word or two and it seems some people have very long memories in this regard.
Strangely, these same people have very short memories when it concerns his triumphs.
It is difficult for the anti-Smith brigade to back up their arguments with stats because his are so solid, so instead they point to the lack of an ODI trophy won under his leadership. This, they tell us, points to a lack of leadership, guts and BMT. What they don’t seem to remember, however, is that no other captain has achieved that with the Proteas either.
I admit, that when Smith first started as captain, I was also rubbed up the wrong way by many of his comments (his branding of Lance Klusener as being a divisive element did not go down well), but remember that this was a 22-year-old Test rookie taking over one of the most pressurised jobs in SA sports.
This was a young man determined to stamp his authority on a team containing some of the biggest names in cricket, including Shaun Pollock – the man he had just replaced as captain!
Smith immediately laid the foundations for his now near-decade of captaincy on the tour of England where his two double-hundreds in the Test series may not have sealed a series win, but certainly announced his arrival on the international stage. Smith showed then that he would lead by example and it is something he has done ever since.
In his early years, Smith – like other South African captains – could have been accused of being too defensive-minded in his tactics, but that is something he has worked hard at changing. The recent series whitewash over New Zealand showed a ruthless desire to demolish teams, while the hammering handed out to Pakistan in the first Test at the Wanderers further entrenched that belief.
Yes, he has made mistakes – a decade is a long time and there were bound to be plenty – but on the whole, Smith has emerged as one of South Africa’s most successful captains (in any sport) and now stands as a giant of the game. You don’t captain a team in 100 Test matches if you don’t have the respect your team-mates and you certainly don’t lead a team into 100 Tests if you are not good at the job.
The Proteas have enjoyed considerable success with Smith at the helm, but none more so than where they sit now – as the number one Test team in the world.
Smith took over a team with a lot of emotional baggage and a chequered history. He has transformed them into world-beaters. And with Biff at the helm, the future sure looks bright.