Graeme Smith has never been the whiny kind. On most days, while wearing South African colours, the ‘Big Easy’ went about his job with an abstruse grin. It could have been a warm smile or, maybe a mocking smirk, nobody ever knew. You could never interpret Smith’s expression. Nor could you read his mind, mood or move — a trait he shared with other long-serving successful leaders like him.
Once, while opening for Rajasthan Royals, with an in-form Swapnil Asnodkar at the other end, Smith was struggling. The five-nothing Asnodkar, a nobody from Goa enjoying IPL Season One’s unexpected high, walked up to the towering captain of the world’s best side at the time with words of encouragement. Those were crazy times, the suddenly famous kids had the gall. Smith didn’t mind. He was all ears, giving slow nods with a pleasant but inscrutable expression.
A year earlier at Kanpur, after the 1-1 drawn Test series, he had put on the same mask. The diabolical pitch had negated the team’s lead in two-and-a-half days while the Green Park gawkers hadn’t been too gracious to his companion at that time, Slinky Minky, who was clearly under-dressed for the venue. He had enough reasons to break into a rant, but he didn’t.
Instead, he opted for an understatement: “The pitch was slightly underprepared”. That was Smith. He always believed in mopping spilled milk and moving on. He didn’t waste time crying over uncontrollable or nasty taunts. From the time he got world cricket’s second most difficult job — leading Pakistan tops that list — he has been subjected to snide swipes. “He wouldn’t last a tour,” they said when he became the captain at 22. Smith was to became the longest serving, longest-smiling international skipper.
They called his highly talented team a bunch of chokers. He always found the tag amusing. The rest of the world got the joke after South Africa’s recent five year undefeated streak both home and away.
Despite the fact that India has just one series win to show against a Smith-led South Africa, the fans in blue have never been hostile to the leader of the ruthless side. You might not have his poster on your wall but you can’t think of putting his face on the dart-board.
Even when he has been all at sea against Zaheer Khan, he would unleash his trademark disarming grin to de-escalate the tension around the engrossing duel. And this has been Smith’s legacy to South African cricket. Unlike the other stereotypes of the ugly Aussies or the snobbish English, the South Africans, under Smith, were popular champion side. You couldn’t despise them even after they destroyed you.
(Sandeep is national sports editor)