Jimmy Cook is a former South African opener who played three Tests before taking over as coach at the King Edward School in Johannesburg where he oversaw the rise of Graeme Smith and then went on to become his mentor.
The first time I met Graeme Smith I thought he was an odd boy. He had come to one of the cricket clinics we ran in Johannesburg and was bowling in the nets when another kid asked him something. Graeme turned around and sternly told this kid, “Can you leave me alone? I’m bowling.” And this kid looked at him like, ‘who the hell are you?’
Even I was taken aback by Graeme’s reaction. He was just 12-years-old. When he batted, every time Graeme hit the ball he would look straight at me as if inquiring ‘Everything ok?’. At the end of the net, he came to me and asked, “What did you think? How did I do?” We spoke only cricket. Jeez, the practice finished and suddenly Graeme’s high-fiving everybody and playing and running around like a normal kid. If anything, he was a naughty little bugger. But while he was playing cricket, there was no one or nothing else that mattered except what he was busy doing. I have never met a more focused young man. Ever.
Graeme’s an out-and-out Jo’burg boy and moved to Cape Town only much later. He went to King Edward School, where I was coach. And when he was 16, I spoke with the Lions franchise guys insisting that we need to sign him now. The guy looked at me like I was crazy.
A year later, he was with South Africa U-19s and I had eight of the 10 franchises calling me repeatedly asking ‘what do we have to do to get him into our province?’
Mentally, I’ve never seen a kid stronger then Graeme. Play or miss his expression never changed. As a bowler you would wonder, did he play at that ball cause he doesn’t look worried at all.
There were a couple of technical issues to start with. His grip on the bat was something we always tried to sort out. Eventually, we decided to work with it. He just wanted to practice. I used to fetch him (Graeme), Stephen (my oldest son), and a boy called Matthew Harris, who ended up as the Lions wicket-keeper, from school and bring them to the indoor centre at the Wanderers. We would start at 3 o clock. And we would just hit balls. Two throwing to each other and me on the machine. And we would rotate. It would be 7 o clock when their dads used to come and fetch them and Graeme would go, “No, no Dad, just one more net.” We used to be there for four-and-a-half hours.
Graeme would never tire of asking questions. “What was it like opening the batting? How should continued…