The Sydney Cricket Ground on January 7, 2009 witnessed one of the high points of Graeme Smith’s stellar international career.
As Smith emerged from the dressing room late on the final evening of a Test match in which South Africa had for the most part been dominated by the Australians, first those spectators in close proximity rose to applaud him, and then gradually others in the Members Stand, the Ladies Stand, onto the Bradman Stand. And by the time he was halfway to the crease, everyone in the grand old ground, which was only half full, was on their feet.
The applause brought a lump to the throat, and some hardened old cricket hacks were wiping away a tear.
Smith’s left hand was broken, courtesy of Mitchell Johnson in the first innings, and he had tennis elbow in his right arm, which made even brushing his teeth an extremely painful exercise.
He hadn’t been expected to bat that day.
His South African side had already won the series in Australia – becoming the first team from this country to achieve that – so there was no need for this act of bravery.
But that is not the way of Graeme Craig Smith.
He knew what he was building as the captain of South Africa. Taking a side often ridiculed for its mental fragility and disgraced by the greed of one of his predecessors in the role, he wanted to create a legacy, a culture which the next generation of players could buy into, be proud of and look to match.
So he strode to the middle of the SCG wearing a burger-stained pullover and some modified batting gloves, with mind and heart hell bent on keeping Australia at bay.
He lasted 26 minutes, faced 17 balls and even managed to score three runs. South Africa were 10 balls away from saving the match when Johnson got one to rear back off a crack and crash into his off-stump.
Initial disappointment was replaced by enormous pride.
In marketing speak, it’s called “building a brand”, which is exactly the mission undertaken by Smith over the course of his 11 years in charge of the South African team.
It started around about 2007 when some structural changes were made to the national team.
The employment of six batsmen, a wicket-keeper and four bowlers became the look of the side.
However, changing the structure was one thing, the culture quite another, and to do that, there had to be success on the field.
Central to the success of 2008 was Smith.
South Africa won 11 out of 15 Test matches in 2008 and won series’ in England – for the first time in 43 years – and Australia for the first time yet.
Smith scored 1656 run in 25 innings that year – the third highest aggregate for a calendar year – while his unbeaten 154 at Edgbaston to win the series against the English is already regarded as one of the great Test knocks of all time.
Through that year grew the ideals of the team’s culture; finding strength in diversity, taking pride in the Protea badge and never being satisfied.
That is to be Smith’s legacy.
For all the unnecessary and brainless criticism he copped from the South African public, it is important to recall just what a fractured unit he inherited as a 22-year-old, and the time he inherited that side.
The embarrassing World Cup exit in 2003 had occurred with the cloud of Hansie Cronje’s misdeeds still hanging thick over the South African game.
The administration of the game was itself coming to terms with new leadership.
Throughout Smith’s tenure there was little stability, and personal battles between administrators took attention away from the deeds of the national team.
The bonus scandal unfolded at the time the team was first ascending to the top of the Test rankings, and the change in Cricket South Africa’s administration – a new board, a new chief executive – took place while the team was cementing that No 1 position.
Whoever takes over from him as Test captain – AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis seem to be the favourites – will have it much easier than Smith had it in 2003.
An environment has been created in which players can take pride in their work.
There is history for them to seek to match and improve on and young players who have been inspired.
Smith was never the prettiest of batsmen, but his incredibly strong mind mixed with a great work ethic ensured that he was extremely effective.
“When I started my professional career, all I used to hear was about my grip and my stance and that I needed to change a lot of things,” Smith said at his final press conference as captain on Wednesday.
“So to be sitting here, 17-and-a half-thousand runs later, is maybe an example to people who possibly don’t have as much talent, that if you’re determined and work hard and you’re resilient, there is still a lot (you can do) in life, not just in sport.”
Smith has left a great legacy for South African cricket, ushered in a new era and made the Proteas brand one that is known and respected around the world. - Sunday Independent