Graeme Smith – Above and Beyond

Graeme Smith walked alone through the guard of honour, the applause of the crowd ringing in his ears, and came to the crease for one final time.

The master of the defiant fourth innings would be asked to lead his side to safety one final time and, as he has so often before, took guard, settled his considerable bulk over the bat, jutted out his chiselled chin, and stared back down the pitch, ready as always to take up the challenge.

Just a matter of months ago he had scored a famous 234 to lead his side to victory over Pakistan, yet he had been unable to recapture the feeling throughout this series, dominated by the guile of Harris and the blistering pace of Johnson.

Yet these were distant yesterdays and this was today and only the now would matter to a proud man with a slightly obdurate streak who might have forgotten his form temporarily but not his will to fight.

Harris bustles in and is immediately on the money with a ball that rises from a good length. Smith takes it high on the bat to successfully negotiate the over and to await the fury of Mitchell Johnson that was soon to come.

He only had to wait one ball as his partner takes the single – it’s time for his acid test against Johnson.

Over the years Biff had faced a fair few examinations. He never looked like a guy who would do well in them and yet his report card was one mostly filled with A’s, year after year after year.

One last test to complete and you could hear the sharp intake of breath from the crowd who were willing their hero to his fairy tale finish. Johnson’s arm comes over like a slingshot and the ball is up into his ribs in no time at all. Smith rides the bounces, gets the ball to ground, and scampers three runs.

The relief around the ground is palpable, their belief in their captain unshakeable, their hearts a flutter with admiration. Can Biff perform one final miracle?

Down the other end he watches as Harris traps Petersen in front to claim his 100th Test victim. The task has become harder yet the crowd will continue to believe in fairy tales and miracles – their mighty captain is still there.

Johnson hands his cap to the umpire and walks briskly to the top of his mark. Time almost stands still as he approaches the crease and then suddenly all is a blur.

Over comes the whiplash arm, the ball careening into Smith’s body. He tries to shuffle inside but can only meekly fend it to Doolan in close. Before you could return to your seat from the beer queue the career of one of South Africa’s finest was over.

Smith’s fight was over and it would be left to others to safeguard a mighty legacy against the marauding Australians. In the image of their captain, and with a nod to not so long ago Adelaide, you know they will fight to their last, and their record suggests they can not be written off no matter the odds.

Should they not succeed it will mark their first series defeat since 2009, a period during which they have remained at or near the top of the cricketing tree, having built a side that deserves every consideration as being among the finest of any era.

Far more than his runs, and there were many, this is the legacy that Graeme Craig Smith will leave to his nation, a man who at the tender age of just 22 took the reins of his national side for 109 of his 117 Tests and led them to the summit. No man has led his country in the Test arena on more occasions and none enjoyed more wins than the 52 his teams achieved.

Throughout a storied career he scored runs in all conditions, against all comers at the top of the order, in the process becoming the second most prolific opening batsman in Test history behind the legendary Sunil Gavaskar. To the eye Smith bore a striking similarity to the old Land Rovers so commonly seen on safari across the savannahs of his country – sturdy and powerful with little in the way of aesthetics, devoid of flash accoutrements but immensely reliable and uniquely equipped to handle all manner of going, staring down each challenge and robustly finding a way through. Their slogan, “Above and Beyond”, seems to sum Smith up rather well.

Smith’s journey saw him contribute over 9,000 runs at a high quality average of 48 with 27 centuries thrown in for good measure. Like everything he did it, his batting had a sense of meaning and purpose, each century a robust cornerstone of a victorious push or a successful rear guard stonewalling effort – none came in a losing cause, a symbol of his sheer will to win and ability to survive, and also an indication of the quality of his individual output.

He was always a man of function over form, substance over style with an insatiable will to win which, when this became impossible, drove a desperate determination to avoid defeat. His team contained better stylists, perhaps even better players, but all became imbued with his spirit and relentless desire to make the best of their talent, and a refusal to accept defeat or the impossibility of any challenge. Defeat, when it occasionally came, would be met by honest self-appraisal and learning from mistakes. The response would usually be emphatic and decisive with Smith often leading the charge.

He may not have been able to rouse himself to lead one last charge overnight in Cape Town but his spirit and example will be with the remaining batsmen on the final day as they fight to their last breath to avoid defeat. It is a spirit and attitude that will remain with them not just during the battle today but long after he departs the change room for the last time over the months and years to come.

His record will be about what his has done but his legacy will lie in the culture and team that he has built – something that will withstand the ravages of time and make a far more compelling case for greatness than his batting alone.

Welcome to the pantheon of greats Graeme Smith !

Until next time … that is stumps.