Graeme Smith: South Africa's Cautious Hero or Just a Cricketing Coward?

Neal CollinsAnalyst IJanuary 7, 2011

No Biffs or butts: South Africa captain Graeme Smith
No Biffs or butts: South Africa captain Graeme SmithGallo Images/Getty Images

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 No. 1 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. 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 fourwinkled 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 inning 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 then 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.”

Jeremy James emailed to say the team psychologist, Dr. Henning Gericke, said before the test that South Africa had to learn to "take more risks and not be afraid to try things." How true that turned out to be. 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.

He also says South Africa have only failed to defend a target over 250 at home under Smith once (against Australia in Johannesburg in 2006) and India are historically poor chasers. The twitter debate (@nealcol) has been fierce and varied.

And here I sit, waiting to ask the big question, expecting a big Biff from Graeme Smith, ready to go on eNews in Johannesburg at 7.30pm to make my case. A great series, ruined by caution and conservatism, or a great fighting draw for the Proteas and Jacques Kallis? It’s got to be discussed.

Who the hell is Neal Collins? See or tune in to eNews in South Africa tonight at 7.30pm.