Graeme Smith was appointed captain of South Africa's Test cricket team in April 2003 at the tender age of 22. Since then he has brought his own brand of confidence, aggression and directness to the captaincy, together with a "never back down" attitude and a propensity for scoring big runs when they are needed the most. He has scored 23 test centuries, has a batting average of over 50 and has presided over South Africa's most memorable success ever on the cricket field - an away test series victory over Australia in 2008, something that had never before been achieved by a South African cricket team in 120 years of playing the game internationally.
But even after everything Smith has achieved for his country, the South African public and media seem to want to bring him down all the time. I am forever hearing people say that he should be dropped or that his captaincy is terrible. Newspaper reporters are the worst, because their venomous and spiteful invective is often read by thousands of people, many of whom mistakenly assume that journalists always get their facts right before publishing a story. This season (2011/2012), Smith has been booed at the Wanderers, Centurion and Durban, and despite good form in Test cricket was facing criticism coming into the first test match against Australia at Newlands in November 2011.
Why is this? Why should a man who has proved his worth over and over again be on the receiving end of so much hatred? I would not blame him if he chucked it in and walked away, but (fortunately for us), Graeme Smith is bigger than that. He is quoted as saying that he does not want to respond too harshly to those who have been calling for this head. Just like the raw and nasty Australian sledging he received when he made his test debut at the age of 21, he takes it all on the chin, shrugs his shoulders and resolutely soldiers on.
And in the test match against Australia at Newlands in November 2011 he was once again instrumental in carrying South Africa to victory with an undefeated century in the fourth innings. This made him the first player in history to score four centuries in successful run-chases (he previously achieved this feat against New Zealand in 2004, England in 2008 and Australia in 2008, all away from home). Among batsmen who've scored at least 1000 fourth innings runs, only two batsmen have a higher average than Smith's 56.92. In fact, Smith's second innings batting average is HIGHER than his first, and as anybody who has followed the game knows, batting in the second innings of a match is always more difficult than in the first ; it is in the second innings when the pressure is invariably on, and this is where "Biff" really shines - when the chips are down and your back is against the wall, there is no better player to have at the crease than Graeme Smith.
|GC Smith's Test Record|
|(correct as 12/11/2011)|
Here's another incredible statistic - when Smith scores a century, South Africa do not lose. Of Smith's 23 hundreds, 16 have come in wins and seven in draws, meaning that he hasn't yet scored a hundred in a Test defeat.
The strange thing is that Hansie Cronje, South Africa's cricket captain in the 1990's, achieved almost universal popularity with the public despite being a liar, a cheat and not even a very good batsman (his test batting average was only a shade over 36, and he scored just six centuries in 68 matches)! Cronje was convicted of match-fixing and brought shame and embarrassment upon South Africa, yet some so-called cricket followers still idolise him. Excuse me, but am I living in some kind of alternative universe here? You admire Hansie Cronje, who was a disgrace, but despite all his achievements you criticise Graeme Smith? That is VERY weird.
So the question remains - why do people love to hate Graeme Smith? He never whinges or criticises his own players (unlike some former captains of Australia whose names I shan't mention here), never makes excuses, just gets on with the job. He has had lean periods with the bat, but this happens to all batsmen, even greats such as Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. So give him a break! He is the best captain South Africa has had since isolation and one of the best opening batsmen ever. Rather support him, support the Proteas and support your country.
[Update] Graeme Smith retired from international cricket in March 2014 after the third test of the home series against Australia. He played 116 tests for South Africa and was captain for 108 of them ; his term as captain included two away series wins over Australia, two away series wins over England and South Africa becoming the top-ranked test cricket team in the world. Although the South African public always seemed to be against him while he was captain, I suspect that as time goes by his achievements and legacy to South African cricket will become more and more appreciated.