There was a time, a long time ago, when Graeme Smith’s uneasy relationship with the South African public was understandable. He was brash, he was confrontational, desperate to prove himself as a leader of men.
That was a long time ago, a mountain of runs, of individual and team records, and dozens of landmark victories ago. And yet, after the first Test in the desert, where Smith and his Proteas side failed, there were already those calling for his head.
On the back of his first meaningful match in months, where he was undone by the menacing Mohammad Irfan, many armchair experts were already questioning why South African cricket still persists with Smith, because his batting is “just not good enough”.
Never mind an average that hovers around 50, never mind that he was closing in on 9 000 Test runs, which is uncharted territory for all opening batsmen, aside from the great Sunil Gavaskar.
By the time Smith, still not 33, is done, the original Indian Master’s records may be confined to second place.
The wonderful thing about cricket is that a man’s numbers will always allow him to be judged against those who came before him. Not one of Smith’s 27 Test tons have been in vain, in a losing cause.
No other batsman, aside from Sir Don Bradman, has figured in as many triple-century partnerships in the history of Test cricket. He has made the most number of runs as a Test captain. He has captained the most Tests in history and has the most Test wins.
And still, in this baffling country of ours, there are those who seemingly cannot stand him, because of “the way he looks at the crease”, or the “way he comes across on TV”.
These must be the same kind of people who don’t like Adele’s music, because she sounds nice, but “isn’t as hot as Rihanna”.
Batting, much like music, is not a beauty contest, and as ugly as Smith’s smites to backward square-leg may be, they have been devastatingly effective. Like his latest offering in Dubai, he has constantly found a way to deliver a performance when it is most needed.
If Smith was Australian, English, or Indian even, he would already have demi-god status. For all the wonderful players those countries have produced, they have never had a leader who has endured as long as Smith has.
Messrs Border and Waugh were immense for the Aussies, but were part of a generation when the baton was passed on with glee, the next leader assured of leading the world’s best side, brimming with batting riches, and a certain Shane Warne.
Smith’s rise is storied enough, but it is even more impressive that, 10 years on, he is still leading from the front. And, despite the unique challenges, he is not quite done yet.
The appetite for runs is still there. The yearning for collective greatness burns just as fiercely, and Smith has found the inner peace that marriage and maturity manifests, and his previously heavy hand has become accomplished, considered even.
And still, the masses lie in wait for another Smith stuff-up, to ram their small-minded message home. In this age of instant information, it is a mystery that the beer-guzzling mob that can rattle off 140-character vents cannot find the time to check a few facts about the greatest leader the game has known.
As Imran Tahir’s wonderful burst on the first day proved, every man deserves a second chance. It remains one of South African sport’s great mysteries that Smith has achieved so much for his country, and still the doubters remain.
He should be celebrated, because there has never been one quite like him. Just ask the Poms, the Aussies and the Pakistanis who chased leather until it got out of fashion. - Sunday Tribune