Friday, 7 January 2011

Graeme Smith: cricketing coward or cautious hero? It's got to be discussed!

Sadly we have to turn to a bloke called Lokendra Pratap Sahi and the Calcutta Telegraph in India to reveal the truth of South Africa’s ultimately disappointing drawn series against India, the world’s No1 Test side.

Mr Sahi wrote on Friday: “An otherwise intense contest came to a rather insipid end, at Newlands, on Thursday. Captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni went to the extent of saying it became “rather boring.” Frankly, both India and South Africa appeared content to be finishing 1-1.

“The hunger and desperation just wasn’t there and Graeme Smith slipped up by not effecting a declaration, on Wednesday, and challenging India to go for the kill.”

And he quotes Dhoni as saying: “To chase more than 300 is very difficult... If we’d got that, then we could have done something special.”

Not a word about Smith’s desperate lack of a declaration in the South African newspapers on Friday, as far as I could see. The Citizen had a gentle dig. Biff, as the local scribes like to call him, goes unpunished for ruining a great series. All that talk of “brave cricket” and the grim-faced 29-year-old didn’t even get asked the question: Why didn’t you declare when Dale Steyn got out at 287-8 on Wednesday night? You could have had ten big overs from Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel at the end of day four – winkled a couple out and gone for the throat.

Instead he batted right through to the close, offering India an unappetising target of 340 runs, which would have been a record fourth innings score.

India, quite rightly, never considered chasing that kind of target on the final day, especially when they lost the whirlwind that is Virender Sehwag early on. Instead, the potential game of the century dwindled into a bore draw with India still the world’s best Test side when they dawdled off with 166-3 on the board, still a mammoth 174 short of a victory which would have seen them clinch the series 2-1.

Instead of the finest finish to this fascinating clash between the world’s top two, we were treated to a negative stalemate, leaving cricket-speaking fans around the world to dwell on the tastier morsel of England’s epic 3-1 Ashes win over Australia.

The annoying thing is, I was tweeting the South African cricket writers like a demented twit on Wednesday night, as Biff chose to bat on. And again the next day, I begged: You’ve got to ask the question. But no, not a word could I find on Friday about Smith’s negativity... except in the blogs and articles coming out of India.

Apologists, and there are many, suggest batting hero Jacques Kallis’s injury and spinner Paul Harris’s lack of spin put Smith in a corner. That he couldn’t risk defeat by gambling on a target of less than 300. The captain himself said: “I really did expect more from the wicket than what it gave us. We didn’t have much swing or anything like the first three days. It gets pretty hard work out there.”

It was pretty hard work watching it, knowing that the dead hand of Biff hadn’t taken the life out of a great contest. I’ve contacted Smith through his website and on his twitter link trying to ask the question nobody else dared to ask.

I’ve looked at South Africa’s record at Newlands. Perhaps Smith was influenced by highest run chase ever recorded in Cape Town: Australia’s 334-6 in March, 2002. Captain Ricky Ponting reached his ton with the winning four, Matthew Hayden cracked 96 and Smith could only look on as the Aussies, then a formidable force, cruised to victory in just 79.1 overs... but South Africa opened with Makhaya Ntini and Dewald Pretorius then, not Steyn and Morkel. Paul Adams was their spinner, not Harris. Kallis was fit to bowl. And Australia started the final day on 131-1.

Perhaps haunted by that historic chase, the tenth biggest in Test history, Smith stubbornly refused to declare on Wednesday night. Herschelle Gibbs, who played for South Africa then, twittered on Friday: “Sorry bud, not my duty to comment.”

But he did tweet again to say: "That's why nobody wants to be captain bru,too many decisions to make! Lol."

And the there was the infamous New Year Test at Sydney in 2006. Smith declared and set Australia a target of 287 in 76 overs – and was hammered in the media for losing a drawable Test by eight wickets with Ponting the villain once more, hitting 143 not out off nearly a run a ball. That day, Andre Nel and Johan Botha could do nothing to halt the inevitable.

Steyn, the world’s best bowler, summed up the Proteas’ current attitude after day three: “We must get ourselves first into a position where we can’t lose before we try to win.”

Ironically, the Proteas’ team psychologist Dr Henning Gericke said before the Newlands Test that South Africa had to learn to "take more risks and not be afraid to try things." Sadly, the call for "brave cricket" went unheeded. Remember Hansie Cronje in 1995? He set NZ a target of 275 in 63 overs when a draw looked the most likely result and South Africa won. And remember, South Africa have only failed to defend a target over 250 at home under Smith once and India are historically poor chasers.

And here I sit, waiting to ask the big question, expecting a big Biff from @graemesmith49, who is very quiet. I've emailed him at his official site, tried the number I was given for the South African captain. It doesn't work. I even went on eNews on Friday night with the excellent Stacey Holland (see picture above) to debate the issue. In a nutshell: A great series, ruined by caution and conservatism? Or a great fighting draw for the Proteas and Jacques Kallis? I thought it went well. I wasn't too harsh.

I asked this: Does Smith consider the future of Test cricket when he makes decisions? Does he not feel he owed it to the game to provide a great finish to a great series? I guess it’s just history now. We may never know.


  1. I really don't like it when you make so much sense.

    As far-fetched as it may be, I do think India's 'luck' had something to do with Biff's 'cowardice' (your word). I remember reading 5 news bulletins Wednesday morning about how lady luck seemed to be smiling down on Dhoni's side. To take a risk that would've been fantastic.... But after hearing such reports, I mean I know the stats where on our side, but with no Kallis to bowl it was a major risk... It was an enormous risk.

    Great read (as always) sir.

  2. Thanks Kate. I don't like raking up negativity, but I was appalled none of the South African cricket writers discussed the decision not to declare, one which could have topped off a great series with style. Test cricket will die if captains don't gamble to produce results. Hansie Cronje used to!

  3. Some captains (chosen ones) get away with things. Though some have criticized Smith for not declaring here in India, not many have questioned Dhoni for 1) winning the toss and bowling and 2) bowling with Ishant after lunch on day 4..

    Smith, not declaring - though negative, can be understood. There have been too much talk about the rankings before the series and a loss would not have been acceptable. There was also the Sehwag factor - even if he doesn't score, there is always a chance of it being his day. Finally, they batted on day 4 and must have known it would have needed something really special to get 10 wickets on that track.

  4. Agreed on all that, just thought this series deserved a better finish. It ended on a yawn... and that's Smith's fault, surely?

  5. I also find it surprising that South Africa has not won any of their last three home series...surely, to be considered as the number 1 team in the world, they need to start winning at home, right?

  6. Mr Tracerbullet, unusual name... but you're right. Home wins rare for South Africa... they need to back themselves at home. Play "brave cricket"!