The rainbow nation had seen their favorite captain Hansie Cronje fall from grace due to a match-fixing scandal. Cricket fans in South Africa were dejected as Cronje was arguably a blue-eyed boy of the public.
However, there is a saying that no individual is indispensable in sport as one great captain’s feats can be overtaken by another in the making.
Similar circumstances took place as out of nowhere a bloke called Graeme Smith was thrust upon the biggest honor in the country, to captain the South African side in both formats.
The Déjà vu had struck for South Africa as hosts for the 2003 World Cup when a miscalculation meant that they got knocked out out of the tournament by one run. Shaun Pollock resigned understandably so, due to failure of the team to progress all the way. The events saw a burly left-handed batsman named Smith be named as captain of the side as huge amount of expectations were thrust upon his shoulders.
The southpaw stood tall at the crease with an innocuous technique, propagating to play virtually every ball on the leg side. Some thought that he might not last long. However, sport is not all about talent, it is about the will and ability to dig deep in pressure situations.
Nicknamed as “Biff”, Smith was acknowledged as a player who hit the ball hard with his big bat. Like Steve Waugh, he took out a lot of his technique that looked a bit dodgy at times but made it count in key moments.
Smith responded in his first assignment on a tough tour to England that included a five-match Test series. Nasser Hussain mocked him in the press conference at the start of first Test and had to give up his captaincy after that match.
Smith went on to score a mammoth double hundred to raise his side’s chances of playing well in the series. He backed it up again with his bat as he destroyed an England attack to notch up 259 runs in the second Test at Lord’s as South Africa managed to draw first blood to win the game by an innings and 92 runs. Smith scored over 700 runs in the series and established his authority as a batsman.
Like any other, Smith also had to go through lean periods in terms of captaincy as he lost consecutive series against Sri Lanka, India and England in Test cricket. He also saw his team flunk to lose ten one-day games in a row but never allowed his spirits to go down in times of adversity.
He would invariably play knocks under critical situations to bail his team out of difficult situations. Smith is also remembered for a great heist at the Wanderers against Australia to chase 434 in a record-breaking one-day game.
Smith was a master and run accumulator in the fourth innings of a Test match when the conditions of the pitch and bowlers do gain sizable advantage over batsmen. The mantra for run-scoring for him was to rotate the strike and be as aggressive as possible. This trend began when he scored an unbeaten century against New Zealand to level a crucial series. By the end of 2007, he had pulled off some important contributions with the bat for his side in close games against India and Pakistan.
The year 2008 turned out to be the high point of his captaincy as his side managed to play well in Bangladesh and followed it up with a terrific feat of drawing a series in India. The turning point was the England tour as South Africa managed to win a series against the Poms for the first time since readmission after close battles in previous series in 1998 and 2003.
After a defeat at Lord’s, England had big worries with plenty of selections issues that saw Graeme and his men seize the initiative with a win at Headingley, set up by tons scored by Ashwell Prince and AB de Villiers.
The critical moment came at Edgbaston with Dale Steyn not available in the game for the side. André Nel came in and played the role well with the ball. With a tricky chase of 284 runs, Andréw Flintoff ran raucous with the ball in hand as he grabbed crucial wickets of Neil McKenzie and Jacques Kallis. The celebrations after Kallis got out were quite reminiscent of the days of Ashes 2005 where at times Freddie Flintoff at his pomp bowled magical spells.
In midst of all the carnage and pressure going on, Smith kept his composure and kept out the bowlers with disciplined batting. Then, he went on a charge with Marc Boucher to see his side win the series after 43 years. Smith for once came up trumps again with the bat to score an unbeaten 154 runs on a difficult pitch. This stupendous performance by the captain infused a belief in the side that kept them undefeated for a period of nine years playing abroad.
He was a fierce competitor and cherished gladiatorial contests against the likes of England and Australia. In that same year, South Africa led by Smith went to Australia where they had never won a series before in their cricketing history. The first Test saw them stacked against the odds as they had to chase 414 runs to win the match at Perth.
Smith put his hand up with the bat to score a magnificent hundred which helped them chase down a big score to see them go 1-0 up in the series. The victory at Perth had such an effect on South Africa that they then spurred themselves to defeat Australia at Melbourne to become the first side to defeat them at home since West Indies.
Instances of sheer courage and bravado kept Smith poles apart from the rest as he once came out to bat with a broken finger to combat Mitchell Johnson in order to avoid defeat in the last Test at Sydney Cricket Ground.
At the end of his career, winning twice away in Australia and England, playing well in the sub-continent including a series win in Pakistan was a monumental achievement for his side during his captaincy.
The cricketing public will always see Smith as a fierce Bellator who once put in the cricketing octagon would fight toe-to-toe and lay his all out there on the field. He was iconic and instrumental as a leader and batsman to lead South Africa into their most golden period in their cricketing history.
Smith rode past the likes of Hansie Cronje, Ali Bacher and Kepler Wessels to be hailed as the greatest leader to represent the rainbow nation.