There will never be another Smith

Harsha Bhogle

By 2003, South Africa's misadventures at the World Cup, while not as deeply rooted as now, had begun to acquire an unmistakable pattern. An opportunity at home to erase the trauma of the Klusener-Donald run-out had been squandered, unbelievably, due to a misunderstanding over whether the Duckworth-Lewis figure was a par score or a victory target! Amidst the disappointment of another early exit, and nobody does disappointment as intensely as the South Africans do, Gary Kirsten joined us in our studio at Blaubergstraand just outside Capetown. Then, as now, he was thoughtful and soft-spoken, and suggested, much to our amazement, that South Africa's future lay in going with a little known young man called Graeme Smith as captain.

Smith had played eight tests, all at home, and while two big hundreds suggested a promising future, nobody deposits hope on someone as untested. He wasn't even in the original World Cup team and to suggest that he take over a side with many senior, and hugely accomplished, players seemed to tinge the suggestion with outrageousness. But, explained Kirsten, South Africa needed to move beyond Hansie Cronje, rid themselves of his giant shadow and start afresh. Smith was a very confident young man, a natural leader, a good enough cricketer and, most important, had had no association with Cronje. The impression I got was that he was unblemished. Among his many qualifications this was an unusual one to be on top of a cv.

Shaun Pollock was the captain then and he was, and still is, as nice a man you can meet in the world of sport. And I wondered that day, and for some time thereafter, whether South Africa almost needed someone more abrasive than gentlemanly; someone who would tear the past rather than put it away somewhere.

Graeme Smith was all that and in his early years often came hard at his players and the opposition. It didn't always work but he had age on his side and he was scoring a lot of runs. It bought him time for leaders must experience the wrongs to chisel away at the rights. By 2007, South Africa were winning much more than they were losing, indeed in what is an exemplary record, they have only lost one series since and none away. Yes, the curious meltdowns at World Cups continued, and that is something Smith can never get over, but in Test cricket South Africa were more difficult to beat than anyone else.

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