It was nearly a fitting send-off for Graeme Smith from a team hewn in his image (and ‘hewn’ is the only appropriate word to use). This South Africa side are dogged, resilient, they bat for ages and they’re prone to fourth innings performances that defy received wisdom.
Fortunately for Australia, they had a massive, massive lead and absolutely ages to take 10 wickets. They just about managed it thanks to two spanking deliveries from Ryan Harris (and you wouldn’t bet against it being his last Test either).
After the match, while both teams shook hands, Shane Warne went further and hugged everyone. A frighteningly elated Mark Nicholas then said ‘magnificent full balls’ to Ryan Harris and it sounded horrendous. Mitchell Johnson didn’t sound elated. He sounded drab and depressed, but he was probably just tired.
We wrote this title in the hope that we’d have some really funny thoughts to share once we started staring at the great expanse of whiteness where the body of the article’s supposed to go.
Nothing happened, so we checked Twitter and apparently Graeme Smith’s going to retire. Let this be a lesson to everyone that sometimes all you have to do is make a half-hearted effort to do something, allow yourself to become distracted, and then everything will just sort of work itself out.
In his retirement statement, Graeme Smith confessed to having left everything out on the field over the course of his career. ‘Everything’ by definition includes poo. We don’t know why he would have done that, but he’s admitted to it now.
There’s an outside chance this isn’t the most mature, insightful retirement article we’ve ever written.
We assume this was why he was just dismissed for 15 in the first Test against Pakistan.
Last week, in the only warm-up match for this series, Smith made two against Pakistan A. The innings before that was for Surrey in May. You might think he’d have wanted a bit more time in the middle before this Test, but no, he sat out the second innings of that warm-up match.
Questioned about this decision, he went all Matthew Hayden on us:
“Not batting today was just a management process.”
This hasn’t been the only example of recent guff-talking from Smith. Before the tour, he gave advance warning that match practice wasn’t a major concern:
“I’ve upped my cricket skills in the last two weeks or so and it will be about getting mentally ready.”
The good news is that he now has plenty of time to ‘fine-tune his mental skillset’ back in the shed.
We’re not a fan of batting. Fours and sixes elicit an approving nod of the head, but they don’t move us in the same way as wickets. This has perhaps been compounded by a period of Test cricket that lasted until recently in which huge scores became the norm. That said, there was an enormous amount to admire about the batting of Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and above all Hashim Amla this week. It was almost perfect.
There’s a paradox in that every big innings eats itself a little. The more runs a batsman scores, the easier the conditions are presumed to be. Certainly The Oval didn’t present the stiffest of tests for the South Africans and England didn’t provide the toughest of Tests for them, but to lose two wickets in 189 overs is an achievement in itself.
Every delivery can potentially result in a wicket, but it’s amazing how this fact can transmogrify into fantasy as an innings wears on. Bowlers’ spirits are eroded and batsmen’s confidence builds and often it only ends when the latter gets out of hand. The three South Africans exhibited an iron will in preventing that from happening.
During an innings like South Africa’s 637-2, there comes a point at which it’s no longer about any particular shot or passage of play. It’s most admirable in totality. The sheer scale of what’s happened is the most striking thing about it – all that time and so few mistakes. It’s an exercise in perseverance, endurance and faultlessness, like setting up a giant domino rally only without the toppling pay-off.
It’s also good because you can go outside and enjoy the sun and you won’t miss much.
The ball has swung in this match. There has been seam movement, some bounce and good turn. On top of that, South Africa need to win this game. Mark Boucher and Graeme Smith have been the standout batsmen. This is not surprising.
Most players play worse in these situations. A very small number play better. Boucher and Smith almost always play better when their team need them to and with every Test cap they’ve earned, this has become more and more the case.
How would we fare in the same position? Well, we sometimes freak out watching the highlights of matches we know England have won, put it that way.
Loots Bosman and Graeme Smith today batted in international cricket as if they were playing an overfamiliar cricket computer game on easy setting. Simply aim at cow corner and press the six-hit button.
It was astonishingly clean hitting. Almost robotic. Alastair Cook erred hugely in not positioning a fielder on the grass banks on the other side of the rope.
Graeme Smith’s things are hitting the bulk of the runs in a fourth innings chase and winning Test series.
There were no miracles from Australia’s bowlers, because the bowlers who could perform them are gone. South Africa chased down 183 for the loss of one wicket, won the match, won the series and perhaps even won the right to be considered the best side in the world.
Graeme Smith is a hard man. Our hero, Neil Manthorp, describes a captain who takes fitness tests when injured and if he fails, tears up the results and plays anyway. Smith seems to play the majority of his cricket with a broken finger or rib. His team are made in his image.
They play to win and they do what’s necessary. They’ve got stroke players like AB de Villiers and fast bowlers like Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. They’ve also got Paul Harris who everyone says is shite, but who doesn’t give a toss and just gets on with the business of going for hardly any runs and letting the fast bowlers storm in.
They’ve also got Neil McKenzie, whose batting is so hypnotically unspectacular, it doesn’t just sedate the crowd, it impairs their motor skills as well. Graeme Smith wants these players in his side because he wants his side to win and he doesn’t much care how that happens.
The proof is in the texture and succulence of the biltong.
South Africa could never have chased down 414 without a hundred from Graeme Smith. After he was out for 108, they couldn’t have won without a hundred from AB de Villiers.
What’s really impressed us about this South African win is not that they chased down such a huge total on the final day, or that they did it against what is nominally the best side in the world. (Interesting appearance of the word ‘nominally’ there, eh?).
What’s most impressive is that they managed to fight back so comprehensively after Mitchell Johnson’s spell of five wickets for five runs earlier in the match. A team should be pretty damn dispirited after that happens to them. To overcome it betrays a genuine confidence that is quite, quite sickening. It also makes Ricky Ponting’s traditional pre-match words about South African mental scars seem a bit meaningless.
It’s being said everywhere, but if Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne had been playing, South Africa never would have made it. We’ll go one further and say that if they had been playing, South Africa wouldn’t have won, even if the wisened greats had bowled a load of toss. Sometimes you earn wickets through more than just your performance on the day and that’s a quality that’s extremely hard to replace.
AB de Villiers is in the process of building a reputation that he’s hard to bowl at. He also has another reputation, it seems. It might have been removed by now, but at the time of writing, his Wikipedia page featured the following sentence:
“De Villiers enjoys late nights while on tour with some of the local talent.”
There’s no preamble to that. It’s just one of a series of urelated ‘facts’ about his personal life, in between some quotes about Jesus and the name of his high school.
Before this match Graeme Smith said that Kevin Pietersen might be successful in the short-term via the ‘balls to the wall approach’, so that’s what must have happened today.
But before half of you try and apply this colourful philosophy to your everyday lives, Graeme Smith also had a warning. He said the approach wasn’t sustainable. Big silent boo to Graeme Smith, everybody.
Wherever their balls were, it was nice to see England’s bowlers having a bit of fun.
England v South Africa, fourth Test at the Oval, day one
South Africa 194 all out (James Anderson 3-42)
While we’re coming clean about these things, we might as well ‘fess up on this one as well.
South Africa are probably the least popular Test team other than England (sorry people, but we have a richly questionable history as a nation, largely at the expense of other cricketing countries). Graeme Smith is arguably South Africa’s least popular player. We quite like him.
We like that he was made South Africa captain at just 22 having not been part of the first team, yet felt that he could immediately slag Lance Klusener off upon taking the job. We’ve nothing against Lance Klusener, but he was a major part of the team and Smith’s approach was the equivalent of punching out the huge guy on your first day in prison.
Then he came to England and made 277, 85 and 259 in his first three Test innings over here. Some cricketers can’t attain that level of merciless thuggery after a lifetime in the game. We hated it of course, but we didn’t hate Smith for doing it.
We also like the unbelievable stupidity of the man when he tried to put himself forward as a kind of lightning rod for Antipodean ridicule when South Africa toured Australia. The Australians were only too happy to oblige, but at least he was trying to be noble.
This week he did for another England captain with the most sublimely cussed fourth innings batting imaginable. It was elevated yet further by several of his batting partners virtually bursting into tears at several points. Graeme Smith didn’t concern himself with any of that rubbish. He just carried on hitting runs until South Africa had won the series.