Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Biff moves on

Smith, in a contemplative moment
The first day of Test cricket I remember watching was on a Thursday in England back in 2003. That was the first day of Graeme Smith’s third Test as captain, and his first big test. He scored his second Test double century. It was ugly, ugly batting, but you couldn’t help but respect him. That series contained the first of three England captains he scalped in his time in charge of the Proteas. 

That day, even though I only watched the second half of it after coming home from school, was a tough one for an England fan, as this seemingly limited, grip choking, bottom handed biffer bunted and boshed his way to 178 not out at the end of that day.

Smith was an international captain at the age of 22. That’s a huge amount of responsibility to put on young shoulders. But Smith has always seemed prematurely old. Watching him in 2003 make his highest Test score, he looked like a grizzled veteran to an impressionable 11 year old. 

Back then, he told Mike Brearley he wanted, in an ideal world, to captain South Africa for 14 years. At the time that seemed like a ridiculous bit of optimism, but now it’s almost prescient, with Smith dropping just three years short. 

How will South Africa replace Graeme Smith? With great difficulty. It’s just as hard a transition for world cricket. In the last two years or so, an extraordinary number of world-class players have retired. We’ve lost Dravid, Tendulkar, Kallis, Ponting, Lara a few years earlier, and the likes of Strauss and Hussey just below that category. 

Some will be missed more than others. Pujara and Kohli have filled the shoes of the two Indian greats as well as anyone thought they could. Ponting left an Australia team on the slide, which is now on an upward curve, but the loss of Smith leaves world cricket without his like.

Who else, bar maybe Chanderpaul epitomises the same things he does. Nobody has captained for as long, battled as hard, opened the batting with such distinction. As young players come through with smoothed techniques and gung-ho attitudes, which prematurely old hackers will score the ugly runs? That remains to be seen. 

A year ago, South Africa looked like they were in for a long haul at the top. That supremacy looks shaky as Smith leaves for the old fashioned type of international retirement. It’ll be a moment of deja vu for him. Back in 2003, he was appointed to lead a talented but directionless team. When he arrives at The Oval in April, that’ll be his job again. 

That first innings of his that I saw ended at 277 off 373 balls, at a strike rate of 77. It was easy at times to write him off as a limited player who blocked and nudged, but if he was served rubbish he would hammer it through the leg side all day. He once made 121 off 107 balls in a Test match against Zimbabwe. He wasn’t one paced, he was ruthless. 

He’s one of those batsmen who you think you’ve spent forever watching, even though you probably haven’t. I’ve probably watched less than five long Graeme Smith innings, but it feels like a thousand. 

One that I saw every ball of was this last one. It’s not quite a last chance to see; there’s every chance I might come across him on the county circuit, and watch on, annoyed that this old dinosaur is still scratching away. Despite the years he may play on yet for Surrey, this is the big goodbye.

Unfortunately seeing every ball meant watching three. They contained three runs, all in one shot, his trademark angled push through square leg. He stood at the non-strikers end for a while. Then he got back on strike, Mitchell Johnson flicked his inside edge, the ball ballooned off his hip and settled in Steven Smith’s hands at short leg. That’s it.

As he walked off, there was a kiss to the helmet, a raise of the bat, and as the eyes narrowed, I could swear I could see a small tear. Maybe I imagined it, but the once brash Biff has mellowed. If he didn’t shed a tear, you can bet he felt like he was about to. 

Dean Elgar came in at three, the man who looks like the most likely replacement for Smith as an opener. A much more orthodox player, but one who looks most like the sort of tough, hard character Smith is; he had no more success facing Mitchell Johnson, castled for a duck. There might be some hard time coming.  

Elgar might be as close to him as they can get, but he’s not the same man. In the sitcom NewsRadio, the character Matthew, after having been fired, comes back to the office to find a new face among the crowd and says, “Is this my replacement? Because he doesn’t look anything like me.” Smith’s replacement as a batsman may resemble him, the same square jawed, Afrikaner alpha male look. but it doesn’t mean he can be like him, and it doesn’t make it any easier a transition. 

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