| The skipper can help SA cricket forget the ghost of match-fixing
Graeme Smith was supposed to have spent last week on holiday. The idea was for him to escape for a while and travel, perhaps to Edinburgh or Dublin. But he decided to stay with his team, not as a display of loyalty, but because he didn’t need to escape.
The team management is more vulnerable and sensitive to the demands on its young captain’s time and state of mind than he is, so it was reasoned he would need time off for sanity’s sake. He did not.
The day after the Lord’s Test was pandemonium for the team’s media officer, Gerald de Kock, but Smith was merely tickled by the 63 requests for interviews and/or photographs. Taking advantage of the protection offered by De Kock, Smith spent much of the day resting in his hotel room.
“Mum and Dad came around for about an hour, which was special. Mum asked me if my feet were still on the ground and I said, ‘But they never left the ground’. I don’t realise what I’ve done, personally. They still feel a bit like someone else’s runs.”
Smith could certainly be forgiven for being in a daze after amassing 621 runs in three innings against England’s hapless attack. But instead he has been allowing the significance of his young team’s performance to sink in.
“We did something huge at Lord’s, I know that. I enjoyed having the time to think about the game and reflect without the risk of getting carried away by everything, the hype and commotion. I thought about what the team had done and how to handle the consequences,” he said, before reminding anyone who will listen that he has an eye and an ear for history. “But the series result will be remembered far longer than the result of the Test, and that is what I told the team.”
In many ways Smith prepared for greatness by placing himself under pressure to perform, ever since his pre-teen years, and always expecting to succeed. He never contemplated failure and was never intimidated by success.
Unlike most batsmen, he never believed in the law of averages and he will take guard at Trent Bridge driven by the conviction that anything is possible. Last year he made eight successive one-day half-centuries for Western Province, a run of form that so befuddled South African audiences that they ignored it as a freak, rather than treating it as a portent for things to come.
Smith admits to seeking headlines as a batsman, but is categorical about the way he would like to be remembered as a leader of men: “As captain I would like to be remembered as a guy who had a great team. I don’t mind grabbing the headlines for scoring runs but when the team wins it is the team which should be praised, not the captain.”
A significant part of his education is to be found in the pages of books by Mike Brearley, Steve Waugh and Michael Atherton, the latter of whom wrote about the sleepless nights at the end of his tenure that forced him into the use of sleeping pills. The negative consequences of holding down a high-pressure job for four or five years — possibly more in Smith’s case — were pointed out to him by family, friends and advisers.
His father, Graham, said: “I told him there might be some hard, hard times, real pressure situations when he might struggle to cope. That would be only natural. But he just said: ‘Dad, I really want the job now. It’s what I’ve always wanted and I can do it’. There’s no doubt his mother and I worry more about him than he does.”
Three interviews on radio and television during the first two Tests were enough to put Dad off for life. “Rather him than me,” he said, vowing never to be subjected to such an endurance test again.
Smith Jr, of course, remembers the passage about Atherton not sleeping at night: “I haven’t slept well in either Test, not a single night, not even after all that batting. My body has been tired but my mind has been racing. I go to sleep all right but I wake up very early and that’s it.
“It’s excitement more than anything with me. They’re all good, positive thoughts going through my mind, how we’re going to tackle this and that. I’m sure it would be very different, and a lot harder, if your thoughts were about your form, avoiding defeat or how to motivate your team. I haven’t had to deal with that.”
Before departing South Africa, Smith spoke of the things that motivated him. One such thing was the legacy left to him and his generation by the match-fixing scandal. “I hate it. Nothing irritates me more in cricket and I’m determined to change that perception. Absolutely determined.
“The England players haven’t said a word, unlike the Australians, sadly. I haven’t thought about it once, until now,” he said, voice turning unmistakably steely. “That’s dead now. It’s gone. We are a proud and passionate team that plays to win at all times, every time.”
And he’s right. The subject that has haunted South African cricket for almost three-and-half years, refusing to be killed off, has now had 621 nails hammered into its remains. And for that alone Smith deserves as many holidays in Edinburgh and Dublin as he wants, if he’ll ever leave his team for long enough to take them.