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Smith looks less of a gamble

London: It’s not quite true that Graeme Smith became South Africa captain because he was untainted by the Hansie Cronje scandal, but it’s not totally untrue either.

He never knew the disgraced Cronje, let alone played with him, and that certainly helped his cause.

When the selectors decided on a definitive break with the past after a wretched World Cup earlier this year, during which Cronje’s dubious legacy was discussed more than they would have wished, there were few obvious candidates.

But drastic action was needed and they gambled on a 22-year-old with no real top-level leadership experience and yet to fully establish himself as an opening batsman.

He might not be the most stylish player ever seen in South African colours, but he had an imposing frame and a broadsword bat. And it was useful, after all, to be represented by a fresh-faced young man who could brush off tiresome match-fixing inquiries with a curt: “Never met him, before my time, yesterday’s story.”

Smith, 16 innings into his international career and three matches into his captaincy, is already looking less of a gamble.

The left-hander had already impressed with a 200 against Bangladesh and 151 against Pakistan in his first eight Tests.

But his 277 against England at Edgbaston last week, an all-time South African Test record, will silence wagging tongues for the foreseeable future. True, it was not silky David Gower, or even textbook-straight Jacques Rudolph, but it was powerful, forthright and agenda-setting.

Even the Australians, who had sledged him and his predominantly bottom-handed style mercilessly during his debut series, might now pause for thought.

Strangely, however, Smith, the youngest man ever to lead South Africa, is impressing as much with his mature talk as with his oak-tree walk.

It was during that series against Australia that the South Africa selectors probably realised they had something special in Smith.

The debut half-century against Steve Waugh’s men was nice, but it was his determination not to be bullied which really stood out.

When Matthew Hayden tried to sledge him back to the pavilion, he was met with a level stare and a spirited riposte. Smith’s assured public performances behind the microphone in England have been truly refreshing.

Even when he has got it wrong, he is forgiven for his honesty. He argued, with some justification, that his side could dominate England in the one-dayers but they lost three games out of four.

His confidence was not held against him. At least he spoke with candour. So many captains spend their careers perched precariously on fences. Smith’s spade is a spade and long may it remain so.

When Nasser Hussain tested Smith with an early pre-series bouncer, suggesting there were splits in the South African squad, Smith hit him out of the ground. “Total rubbish,” he said. “It made us laugh.”

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