Eddie may give Smithy a heads-up

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Cape Town – Eddie. One of the strongest Oaks Newlands has ever seen. Eddie with his glasses glistening in the bright sunlight. Eddie with the gold medallion swinging across his chest. Eddie steaming in “bak-arm van die Wynberg kant” as Gerhard Viviers would describe it to all of us huddled next to our transistor radios in the Navy camp just a Kookaburra’s throw from Newlands. Eddie chinese-cutting Clive Rice for four and chortling all the while as he did it. Eddie bantering and laughing with Dulcie and the boys under the Willows. Kojak running on to the field with a Coke and a kiss for Eddie. Eddie with his curls sticking out of his blue Western Province cap and his sideburns growing down to who knows where. Eddie resting his arm on Hylton “Dutchman” Ackerman’s shoulder in the slips as he contemplated his field placings.

When I think of Newlands cricket ground, the first man who always comes into my head is Eddie Barlow.

Eddie and his two-o-clock-on-a-Monday-afternoon declarations that emptied the office blocks in town and filled the trains to Newlands. “Het djy oek gehoor: Barlow het alweer verklaar!!” said the grinning train conductor to the man in the pinstripe suit and the bowler hat.

The buzz and the murmur and the chatter around the ground when Eddie took the ball. Because we knew a partnership was about to be broken. It would be broken because Eddie had decided he would break it. And if he did it with that beautifully disguised slower ball of his, everyone at Newlands would slow-dance each other to heaven.

Of course there was Garth le Roux. Peter Kirsten. Hylton Ackerman. Allan Lamb. Denys Hobson. Gavin Pfuhl. Andre Bruyns. Peter Swart. Kepler Wessels for two summers. But Newlands was Eddie’s place. Eddie and Morné du Plessis were basically the only two men who could bridge the politcal divide in sport in those turbulent times. Eddie. For ever and always Eddie.

Nowadays though, there is another figure who jumps out of my treasure box of Newlands memories. Graeme Smith. Old Iron Jaw himself.

Two weeks ago, the tributes poured in for Smith when he reached the 100 Test mark. The Cape Times, like many other newspapers, ran a series of tributes for his 100th Test as a captain (99 for South Africa and 1 for the Rest of the World). And he deserved every column inch. This week he reaches the real 100-mark. A ton of Tests in charge of his country. Forget a red carpet, roll out the gold one for Greame Smith.

The only problem is one I touched on last year: Smith has never really been embraced by the South African cricketing public in the same way that Hansie the wheeler and dealer was.

I also wrote last year that Smith gives the impression that he couldn’t care less about popularity contests. But hey, we are all human and we all need to be loved, to paraphrase Morrissey, that other famous Smith.

At least Newlands and the Wanderers are the two grounds that respond the best to Smith. So it’s fitting that he celebrated a 100 in Joburg and will reach another 100 in Cape Town. Zaahier Adams tells me Newlands is easily Smith’s favourite ground. It’s always “a marquee Test” at Newlands for Smith. So surely, after a century of matches stoking the flames in the boiler room of Test cricket, Newlands will lead the way this week in acknowledging Smith.

For me, as a Test captain, Smith stands ahead of Ali Bacher, Peter van der Merwe, Kepler Wessels, Shaun Pollock and Hansie Cronjé. He stands ahead of them because of his raw and unfiltered courage with a bat in his hand. Because of his match-winning or match-saving knocks for his country. Because he scored a double hundred at Lord’s. Because he scored far more runs with far less natural talent than so many around him. Because he won two Test series in Australia. Because he won two Test series in England. Because he drew a Test series in India. Because he has that unclassified gift of inspiring people.

Those who play under him call him Biff. I call him Smithy. It’s a Smith-and-a-Smit thing, if you know what I mean. Anyway, when Smithy goes out for the toss on Friday, I hope he listens carefully to the wind in the Newlands trees as he turns the coin around and around in his green blazer pocket. And if he hears the words “heads, Graeme, heads” drifting in on the breeze, well, who else would be whispering than Eddie?

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