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Johannesburg – Back in March 2003 I didn’t think Graeme Smith was the right choice as South Africa’s new cricket captain.
He was too young, plain and simple. He’d played just eight Tests for South Africa. Sure, he had a hunger for runs not seen in a young player since Jacques Kallis was coming through the ranks, but captain, of South Africa, at that point? No.
It was weeks after another bitterly disappointing World Cup exit. The spectre of the Hansie Cronje match-fixing scandal still hung heavily over the sport. It was no time to throw the leadership to a youngster. Smith had potential as a captain sure, but it would have been better for him and South Africa if he was to be allowed time to cement his place in the side.
It wasn’t like there were no candidates for the position, the strongest among those being Neil McKenzie who, while not a heavy run-scorer at that stage, nevertheless had the nous and off-field charm required for the job. I reckoned a four to five-year period of McKenzie as skipper would act as the perfect bridge before Smith assumed the position.
Of course the United Cricket Board of SA (as it was known then) decided to throw their lot in with Smith. It was risky and given that a tour to England was on the horizon, a bold call.
Smith had a short tour to Bangladesh to acclimatise himself, but England was a primary tour and 10 years ago a lengthy one at that – that trip started on June 18 and finished September 8 – would examine a 22-year-old in ways he could never imagine.
And he surprised me, as he did a great many other people in South Africa.
He was loud, forthright and he scored runs, plenty of them, especially in the first two Tests of that series, where he cemented his spot in the side. Going into the fifth Test South Africa astonishingly led the series. Never mind that they didn’t win that last match, in Smith South Africa had a captain, then still naïve, but a player and person upon which the sport could hitch its wagon.
Ten years later, Graeme Smith is preparing to skipper in his 100th Test (his 99th for South Africa, the other being when he led a World XI against Australia).
The journey’s been long. There were great disappointments, many errors, many words and statements he probably wished he could take back.
But there can also be no doubting his status as the finest cricket captain this country has produced.
I don’t mind that 10 years ago I was wrong.