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South Africa's man of steel

By Oliver Brett

Graeme Smith
Smith's South Africa are hunting a first Test series win in England since 1965

Take one look at Graeme Smith and you know he is an individual who will not be found wanting when things get tough.

The jutting jaw and unflinching stare are the mark of a man who, as the most experienced captain on the international circuit, goes into the Lord's Test on Thursday with a personal mission to lead South Africa to their first series win in England since 1965.

Smith, who has led his country 58 times, made his mark on South Africa's last tour to England in 2003 - which ended in a 2-2 draw.

He riled former England captain Nasser Hussain and the incumbent Michael Vaughan, and has since stirred up a fair amount of ill will against Kevin Pietersen, the likely skipper for the start of the one-day series in August.

In his own country, he commands a huge amount of respect - and did so even before his appointment as captain at the age of 22 in the wake of the country's depressing exit from the 2003 World Cup which South Africa hosted themselves.

Only on the fringes of the side back then, he had already made permanent enemies in Australia by naming the individuals who had sledged him on his Test debut at Cape Town, and even revealing who had said what.

But something in his character made him the popular choice to take over from Shaun Pollock, and add some steel to the South Africans' natural flair.

I remember interviewing Smith from Johannesburg soon after he had been named captain and was immediately struck by his extraordinary certainty of how to do the job.

He's a man mountain, a big bloke and when he talks everyone else sits down and shuts up

Somerset's Ian Blackwell

Take this remark about Jacques Kallis, even then one of the most senior players in the side, and five years older than Smith:

"One of my hardest jobs will be to get the guys to step up a gear. As a captain I have to have the ability to tap into any player.

"With Jacques Kallis, you have to make him bowl at 140kph [87mph] because you know he can if he wants to."

Something about Smith, and presumably not just his intimidating presence, unnerved Hussain.

A few months later, South Africa assembled at Edgbaston for the first of five Tests in England, and the England captain attempted to seize a psychological edge.

In a pre-match interview, Hussain notoriously called Graeme Smith "what's-his-name", and introduced him to the match referee as "Greg" at the toss.

As a tactic it backfired spectacularly, Smith scoring a monstrous 621 Test runs in the next nine days as South Africa seized a 1-0 lead in the series.

Hussain, who later admitted the buzz that Smith had created within the South Africa side had made him feel old, resigned the captaincy halfway through the series.

Nasser Hussain and Graeme Smith
Hussain applauds gingerly as Smith reaches 200 at Lord's in 2003

Eighteen months later, Somerset's then chief executive Peter Anderson signed Smith for six weeks of the 2005 season.

His thinking was simple: he needed a leader and a world-class opening batsman, and in Smith he got both.

The policy was a startling success, Smith leading Somerset to an unlikely trophy in the shape of the trendy Twenty20 Cup - and instilling a new positive culture at Taunton which surely helped them win promotion under Justin Langer's captaincy in 2007.

Ian Blackwell, whose own captaincy of Somerset was sandwiched by the Smith and Langer regimes, remembers those heady six weeks back in 2005 well.

"He's a fantastic captain," Blackwell told BBC Sport. "He understood each and every player and what made them tick, and that's crucial.

"I guess he's a man mountain as well, a big bloke and when he talks everyone else sits down and shuts up. When he speaks it's authoritative and precise.

"He's the kind of guy who will tread on people's toes to get results and that's what we needed as a club because we were kind of drifting. His tactics were crucial in close games.

MOST MATCHES AS A TEST CAPTAIN
AR Border (Aus): 93 (1984-1994)
SP Fleming (NZ): 80 (1997-2006)
CH Lloyd (WI): 74 (1974-1985)
GC Smith (SA)*: 58 (2003-2008)
SR Waugh (Aus): 57 (1999-2004)
* Smith's record includes one Test as captain of an ICC World XI

"He has a certain air about him that oppositions tend to fear and opens the batting with aggression. When he strikes the ball it stays hit, so he's also able to lead by example."

Smith's strength of character has told in his ability to shrug off the inevitable disruption created by South Africa's quota system.

And there has been recent proof that some of his Australian opponents have been able to forgive his more youthful misdemeanours.

Smith was one of the star contributors for the Rajasthan Royals earlier this year as the team skippered and managed by Shane Warne picked up the inaugural Indian Premier League trophy.

South Africa coach Mickey Arthur says that one of the keys to Smith's strategy this summer will be a brand of silent aggression.

"Graeme's pretty adamant he's not going to get involved in any sideshows and I don't think any of the other players will either," he said.

"We want to execute our plans properly and we don't want to be fighting with the opposition and ultimately fighting with ourselves. We want to do everything with aggression but we don't want to be saying too much in the series."

England's Andrew Strauss, who played in Middlesex's match against the South Africans at Uxbridge last week, thinks Smith has mellowed a bit through experience.

606: DEBATE
Robs_All_Stars

"In that [2004-05] series he was very forceful in the way he tried to captain, but just having seen him recently I think maybe he's changed a little," said Strauss.

"There are no personal scores to settle against South Africa. It's going to be competitive, hard cricket, but the players are going to get on fine and it will be a series played in good spirit."

Certainly, after the events of 25 June at The Oval and the infamous run-out of New Zealand's Grant Elliott, a series played in good spirit is what everybody needs.

Graeme Smith, according to his website, was such a precocious infant that he could run at eight months old.

And 27 years from then, he has matured sufficiently to shrug off any opposition barbs - Pietersen once labelled him an "absolute muppet" - in the same way he calmly ducks the fastest bouncers.

Smith's focus is squarely on masterminding South Africa's first Test series success in England since 1965 after some agonising near-misses in recent times.

It should be a compelling month of cricket.




see also
Behind the Dale Steyn fairytale
08 Jul 08 |  South Africa
Cricket's craziest man
07 Jul 08 |  England
South Africa target England pair
08 Jul 08 |  England
SA tour match washed out by rain
06 Jul 08 |  Cricket
South Africans draw at Somerset
01 Jul 08 |  Cricket
SA recall Nel for England series
23 May 08 |  South Africa
South Africa in England in 2008
14 Nov 07 |  Cricket
Smith salutes SA legend Pollock
12 Jan 08 |  Cricket
Modern stars impress Barlow
12 Feb 05 |  South Africa
England's yo-yo summer
09 Sep 03 |  Eng v SA 2003
Woolmer gives Smith tough advice
21 Jul 03 |  Eng v SA 2003
Smith picks up the pieces
21 Mar 03 |  South Africa


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