Reaping rewards of a brave decision

HARARE - As we look back with fond memories at the glittering profession of Graeme Smith, who has recently called stumps on a record-breaking career, I am sure cricket lovers in Zimbabwe will join me in paying fitting tribute to this true legend of the game.

Smith, Test cricket’s most successful captain, leaves South Africa perched atop the World Test rankings, a befitting departure for one of the best players ever to pad up for his country.

The success of South Africa under Smith’s strong leadership is largely due to Cricket South Africa’s bold decision 11 years ago to appoint the then 21-year-old to the position of Proteas skipper. Certainly, in that decade, CSA reaped the awards of its astute foresight.

Months before the 2003 World Cup in Africa, CSA had already identified the inexperienced but very promising batsman as the man to eventually replace Shaun Pollock as the country’s cricket captain.

So in preparation for that eventuality, CSA had in January 2003 sent the young Smith to Zimbabwe as captain of a strong South Africa A side for a three-match unofficial ODI series against their neighbours.

It has now been 11 years since that brief tour, almost right at the beginning of my career in media, and I remember vividly the big-framed Smith’s scores of 77, 63 and 22 as domineering innings on a Harare Sports Club track tailor-made for batting with plenty of runs on offer.

The hosts recovered well from a heavy eight-wicket defeat in the series opener to wrap up the contest 2-1, but in fairness, our team – with the World Cup in mind – had been our strongest side disguised as Zimbabwe A (only two members of the World Cup squad, Andy Blignaut and Sean Ervine, didn’t feature in the three matches).

From South Africa A, despite theirs being a very good second-string side with bright promise for the future, only Smith would go on to play in the World Cup a month later. Overall, everyone who played on that tour became or was already an international cricketer of sort in their careers, with the exception of Ahmed Amla (brother of Hashim), who would retire as a veteran batsman last year without being capped by his country at any of the three forms of the game. 

Just after the World Cup, Smith was named Pollock’s replacement as South Africa captain, aged just 21. Despite relinquishing captaincy of the ODI and Twenty20 sides later in his career, Smith retires from international cricket as the longest-serving skipper in the history of the game.

And for a man who hated defeat with a great passion, saving the final Test and series would have served as a befitting send-off for Smith had the Proteas managed to contain Australia at Newlands in those last overs on Wednesday.  But even that does nothing to dent the legacy of this extremely competitive cricketer – known for his contempt for nothing short of the lofty standards he set himself and his team.

Farewell and thanks for the wonderful memories, Biff.

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