Any discussion on accomplished international cricketers in the last 25 years will throw up names like Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Vivian Richards, Brian Lara, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar, Richard Hadlee, Allan Border, Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh, Arvinda Desilva, Muttiah Muralitharan, Ian Botham, David Gower, Graham Gooch, Gary Kirsten, Shaun Pollock, Alan Donald, Jaques Kallis and probably a few others. These cricketers are known for their unique playing styles and accolades showered on them by media.
There is one cricketer, however, whose great performance does not usually find a mention, probably because of his business-like style and unusual technique. Regardless, he has changed the face of South African cricket in 10 years by excellent leadership and brave batting. He is the 32-year old opening batsman, going by the name of Graeme Smith.
Smith replaced Shaun Pollock as captain after 2003 World Cup, where despite playing at home; South Africa could not progress beyond league stages. Considering that he made his test and ODI debuts in March 2002, his elevation to captaincy, at age 22, was rather quick, since Smith had played only 8 test matches by then. He began to open in his third test with Herschelle Gibbs against Bangladesh, where he scored his first double century and followed it up with 151 against Pakistan. Gibbs and Smith are famous for big opening stands, many of which laid foundations for South Africa’s victories. Despite global media ignoring Smith’s achievements, he is World’s 12th player to go past 9,000 Test runs. Smith’s aggregate as opener is second only to Sunny Gavaskar. Since Smith’s cricket career has mostly been spent as captain, he is often compared to Allan Border, who made most of his runs as Australia’s skipper. But Smith has already surpassed Border for the number of appearances as captain.
South African press, which heavily criticized selectors for handing the captaincy to a rooky, was effectively silenced, when Smith scored back-to-back double hundreds in the test series against England in 2003. He made 277 at Edgbaston and followed it up with 259, the highest score by any foreign cricketer at Lords. In Trent Bridge’s third test, Smith was shaping well, when he was out hit wicket at 35, after he lost balance, fending a Flintoff delivery on back-foot. Smith finished the tour with 714 runs in 5 tests and emerged the-player-of-the-series.
In ODI games, however, South Africa flopped in 2004, losing first to New Zealand 1-5 and then to Sri Lanka 0-5. But those were early days for Graeme Smith as captain. Soon, the media stopped calling him inexperienced captain after ICC appointed him to lead the World XI for its Super-Series Test against Australia in October 2005. Same year, Smith led South Africa to win the test series in West Indies by scoring three consecutive test hundreds. However, South Africa lost miserably on their Australian tour in 2005–06 and again when Aussies visited South Africa. Smith, however, had a defiant role in an ODI game in Johannesburg, when Australia scored 434 from 50 overs. Chasing the massive score, Smith went on attacking spree, scoring 90 off 55 balls and shared a big opening stand with Herschelle Gibbs. South Africa won by scoring 438 and clinched the series 3-2.
Hereafter, Smith led South Africa to 20 consecutive ODI wins and by 2007; they temporarily dislodged Australia from No. 1 ranking. During 2007 ICC World Cup, Australians regained their no. 1 spot. In February 2008, Smith scored 232 against Bangladesh and, with Neil McKenzie, he put on 415 runs for the first wicket; a new test record. In 2008, these two were involved in another match-saving double-hundred partnership at Lord’s, where smith scored 108. In third test, Smith made 154 and led South Africa to its first series win since 1965. In December 2008, the Smith led touring South Africans defeated Australia in the test series. This was the first time in 16 years that Australians were defeated at home.
After South Africa’s quarter-final loss in 2011 world cup, Smith resigned as captain of ODI and T-20 sides. He also suffered an ankle injury but recovered in time to play against England in the 2012 test series, where South Africa reached the top of the world ranking in tests by winning this series 2-0.
Last week, Smith scored his fifth career double century in the test series against Pakistan in Dubai. After losing the first test, Smith won the crunch game for South Africa and earned the man-of-the-match award. Smith’s efforts were commendable, since he recently underwent a surgery after the recurrence of his ankle injury.
Under Graeme Smith, South Africa has not lost a single test-series away from home in seven years. Smith has buttressed his reputation as captain and under him; South African cricketers have also regained their confidence. In 104 test matches played as a captain. Smith has recorded victories in 50. No other test captain has done that.