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?’
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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 I play here?” I used to tell Stephen as we would drive back from school, “Geez, this kid asks a lot of questions.”
He had a funny way, Graeme. He scored runs even when he wasn’t playing well. Many a Saturday, I used to watch and think, “Eh Graeme hasn’t played really well today.” Mind you he’s got 15 not out, so he’s doing alright.
half hour later he’s got 35. By the end of the day, 85. He always had a knack of making runs. Then I got to know him better and his dad said I would like you to look after his cricket and I became his mentor. I have to say that I was surprised when he got the captaincy so young. It was at the end of the 2003 World Cup with South Africa having been knocked out early and Shaun (Pollock) having lost his captaincy.
I was just going to go on as a studio guest for a 7 pm evening TV show. At about 6, Graeme’s dad called me and told me, “Graeme’s going to be the captain of South Africa on the next tour. I can’t tell anyone but I had to tell you.”
There were six or seven other guests and then they came to me, “Jimmy what do you think? There’s some talk that Graeme Smith might be the man.” I said Greame might be a little young for the job despite being the only one there who knew.
I’ll never forget an incident that transpired at a preparation camp before they left for England on Graeme’s first tour as captain. The batsmen were doing some shuttles. The bowlers, however, were done and having a cold-drink on the sidelines. Suddenly Graeme screamed, “Everybody here. You bowlers, don’t you ever go and have a cold-drink when we aren’t done with practice. You come here, stand here and you cheer the guys on and help the guys with the fitness that we do.” There were Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald all standing there. At that moment, I realized we’ve made the right choice here. He’s proven us right for over a decade.
I have remained his mentor even after he moved to Cape Town. We’ve always had that sort of unwritten rule. If I need you, I will let you know. The success I had with Graeme has spurred me on to see how many more times I can do this. Get a guy from nowhere and turn him into something.
In a way, you can say I’ve lived my dream through his achievements. I wouldn’t have minded being Graeme Smith actually.
Graeme’s been a very special guy in my life. Some of the best years of my life were spent watching Stephen and Graeme play together. And I’ve really cherished sitting back in my chair and watching him perform miracles for South Africa.
He’s got a bloody good career. And I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone like Graeme again.