“Smith scored nearly 10,000 runs, made 27 hundreds, averaged nearly 50.
He made three hundreds against Australia.
At 22, an eight-Test veteran, Smith was made captain.”
Summerhill CEOI’m in Australia as I write, Melbourne to be precise. I mention the city because it’s about to be hit by some massive financial calamities, and you’d think that might’ve dampened their appetite for horses. Ford, Holden, Toyota, the last bastions of motor car manufacturing in Australia, are all closing down, all in the Melbourne precinct. Aussie icons Alcoa, Electrolux and Gove are all shedding large numbers of jobs. The “Spirit of Australia”, Quantas, is on the brink of becoming the “ghost of Australia”, to quote an eminent trade unionist. The Aussie dollar is so strong, it’s walloped tourism, manufacturing and agriculture, and the resources sector, the mainstay of their economy in the past decade, is harvesting 20% less this year than last in the way of investment.
Headwinds, you’d think, but somehow these fellows always seem to find some means of pulling a rabbit out of the hat. In the very week I’ve been here, dairy farmers have conjured a leap of 15 cents in the litre from their milking activities, from 35 to 50 cents (near enough 50%). Somehow they’ve managed to convince the Chinese that milk (and particularly Aussie milk,) will add years to their lives and do something for the libido. Who knows, they might still save the rhino. When times are looking tight, most players head for the shelters. As buyers at the Inglis Premier Yearling Sale, we thought this could play into our hands; maybe the exchange rate could be countered by a drop in prices.
Somehow though, the Inglis team had convinced the world that this was a sale not to be missed. We knew it as soon as we drove into the carpark on the Sunday morning: it was like the whole world had pitched up. In Australian recessionary terms, horses are apparently bomb-proof. By the end of day one, the average was up 15%, and they were “cooking”. In some respects, we’ve only got ourselves to blame. In recent years, we’ve taken home the Igugus, the Hollywoodboulevards, Rio Carnivals and Dylan’s Promises from Australia, and it’s not only the South Africans that know it. What’s happened is we’ve become victims of our own success, and now it seems there are many more who want a bite of it.
We’ve learnt though, that patience is the virtue the saying says it is. If you can resist the temptation to chase the market, in any catalogue bordering on 800 entries, you’ll find the odd hole. Like the Redoute’s Choice or the Encosta De Lago everyone thought would be too dear for their budgets. Or the odd one an Aussie vet might’ve condemned for fear of a negligence suit, whereas having our own man along for the ride, has sometimes enabled us to make a practical call on an otherwise “unwanted urchin” of the veterinary world. So we won’t be coming home empty-handed, though it has to be said, Inglis have managed to part us from our dough once again, all the while smiling and acting like the world’s greatest hosts.
The Aussies have pulled another bunny from the hat while we’ve been abroard, this time in our own backyard. At Newlands, nogal. We all know the “baggy greens” are the world champions at “sledging”, and its apparent from the telecast they’ve had plenty to say on and off the field this past week. So the last thing you want to be is a visitor to Australia in the midst of a cricket test when they’re belting you. You’re not just up against eleven of them on the field; it’s like you’re taking on the whole damn nation!
On the way, they’ve taken down the greatest cricket captain the South African game has known. Graham Smith did the same of course, to three England captains, Mike Atherton, Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, as well as Australia’s favourite son, Ricky Ponting, so you might’ve thought the Aussies would be gloating a bit. It has to be said though, there was always a grudging respect between the two sides, (and the nations, for that matter,) epitomised by the players guard of honour that marked the ends of both Smith’s and Ponting’s careers.
Forgive me, those readers who visit these columns for the “horsey” stuff, if I pay my respects to a man from another discipline for a moment. Over the years, we’ve dedicated acres of space to our racehorse champions; this is a champion in another mould, but a champion nonetheless. Of Graeme Smith, this can be said more accurately than of any other contemporary cricketer: he took block.
Tall and bulky, he filled the crease at the start of every South African innings of his time, obscuring the bowler’s view of the stumps and the wicketkeeper’s sight of the bowler, immediately creating the impression of permanence. Granity rather than gainly, deft as lumber, he moved as if armour-clad, and like he needed a good oiling. But there were never as many chinks as seemed likely, nor ever a loose screw. He hid technical limitations behind temperamental fortifications, perhaps better than anyone has. Getting him out called for a crusade. Always, his face was set in a kind of half-grimace, like a rugby front-rower about to pack down. It was how he played his cricket. His in-team nickname was and is, “Biff”.
Beginning at 21, he made three double-centuries in his first 12 Tests. The last two were consecutive, against England in England, and he was already captain. As recently as October, he made another double against Pakistan. But Australia has finally worn through his many layers, and now it is all over, and so is an era.
Smith scored nearly 10,000 runs, made 27 hundreds, averaged nearly 50. He made three hundreds against Australia. At 22, an eight-Test veteran, Smith was made captain. In batting terms, this was Johnson from both ends, helmet-less. It was 2003. South Africa still was the team that did not dare to win. The stench of the Hansie Cronje affair had not entirely cleared, Shaun Pollock’s intervening nice-guy years notwithstanding. South African cricket was still wrestling with quotas, and has yet to work out how to cultivate non-white cricketers without being seen to patronise them. Its board was politicised and poor, and later revealed as corrupt. Consequently, South Africa never has as much clout “off-field”, as on. It rarely gets what it wants in terms of fixturing and favours, a regret Smith voiced again only recently.
Smith took block. Initially, he was laughed off: plain name, plain game. Nasser Hussain called him “whatsisname”, Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen mocked him and he fell for Shane Warne’s goading. Smith and Australia begrudged one another respect. In Smith’s favour was Jacques Kallis, Dale Steyn, later Hashim Amla and A.B. de Villiers. But it was one thing to have them, another to hold them. Smith did.
South Africa won in England for the first time in 40 years. It won in Australia, twice; no team had done that since the West Indies. It made 414 to beat Australia in a Test, 438 to beat Australia in a one-dayer, and Smith figured tellingly in both. As a country, we clambered doggedly and determinedly in all forms, in the image of our captain. Four times, Smith made winning fourth innings hundreds, a unique distinction.
South Africa has not lost away for eight years, nor at home for five. Eighteen months ago, we became the No.1 team in world, and whatever happened at Newlands, we still are. Since reintegration, eight men have captained South Africa. Smith has led in more Tests than the other seven combined, and retires as the longest-serving captain of any country in history. Even Warne likes him now.
Somewhere along the way, while pulling all his weight, Smith punched above it. Now his wife and young family become his priority. Captain and batsman, the sum of the parts of Smith add up to a big, solid and formidable cricketing presence that will be made most notable by its absence when South Africa next bats in a Test match, and Graeme Smith does not take block.
From one champion team to another, thanks for the memories.