Graeme Smith: I don't regret what I've done – it's part of growing up

Brian Viner Interviews: On their last tour of England, South Africa's callow captain came of age with two double-centuries but also ruffled feathers. Five years later, he's back – older, wiser and claiming to be misunderstood
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The Independent Online

Five years ago, 22-year-old Graeme Smith, South Africa's opening batsman and newly-appointed captain, arrived with his team in Taunton for the last county game before the first Test at Edgbaston and put the Somerset attack to the sword. More than a hundred of his 152 runs came in boundaries.

Here was a young man in serious form, which he exhibited even more spectacularly a week later in Birmingham. Smith's first-innings 277 against an England attack spearheaded by Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff remains the highest score ever by a South African batsman. And his 259, in the second Test at Lord's, which helped South Africa romp home by an innings and 92 runs, is the highest score by any overseas player at the Home of Cricket, relegating Sir Donald Bradman to also-ran status. In making it, Smith joined Bradman, and Wally Hammond, as one of the select band of batsmen able to boast double-centuries in successive Tests. Aged, it bears repeating, just 22.

On the day we meet, Smith is back in Taunton, five years longer in the tooth. This is not only the ground where he warmed up before so memorably battering the England attack, but also where he scored his maiden triple-century (311 against Leicestershire) while playing for Somerset in 2005. "I feel like I've had an affiliation with Somerset from an early age," he says. His coach at King Edward School in Johannesburg was his compatriot Jimmy Cook, a fine opening batsman for Somerset, but whose international career was stymied by apartheid. Cook did not make his Test debut for South Africa until he was almost 40; Smith is well aware of his own fortune in being born at the right time.

"I have great memories of my time here," he adds. "I've got some good friends here." From what I have heard, I say, they do not include Somerset's current overseas star Justin Langer. Smith looks mildly surprised. "No, I haven't got a bad relationship with Justin," he says. "We just haven't had much opportunity to socialise."

Nonetheless, Smith's reputation as a king-sized pain in the backside precedes him almost as conspicuously on this tour as his reputation as a marvellous cricketer with a Test average of 48.57. At any rate, only Javed Miandad and Douglas Jardine spring to mind as international captains who have ruffled more feathers. Yet Smith insists that his feather-ruffling days are, on the whole, behind him. And certainly he subjects me to a disarming charm offensive, asking how far I have travelled to meet him and thanking me for doing so. Most interviewees don't care whether you've come from Shepton Mallet or Sarawak.

"Look, I probably have," he says, when I ask whether he thinks he has overstepped the mark in previous encounters with England, for example by orchestrating questions from the slip cordon about Michael Vaughan's sexuality. "When you get the captaincy at 22, a lot of people question whether you are old enough, and the opposition maybe see you as a weak point, so you can come across as trying to be too strong, to prove to everybody you can handle it. You don't have experience so you try to show passion instead. You become a bit impulsive, but at 22 you hardly know what type of person you are, let alone what kind of captain you're going to be.

"I don't regret the things I've done, because it's part of growing up. I've repaired a few relationships. I'm quieter than people think, actually. They think Graeme Smith is very strong, very in-yer-face, and it's not entirely accurate. But I do think that body language is a key component in cricket."

I have read before about Smith's fondness for referring to himself in the third person, a habit of boxers rather than cricketers, although in truth he could easily be mistaken for a heavyweight boxer; he is a huge, powerful man, which is why his body language is always so deafeningly loud.

Will he be raising the matter of Vaughan's sexuality again this time, then? He laughs. "Look, there were a couple of jokes going round in the slips, because there was a programme on TV at the time called Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. They weren't particularly aimed at him although he obviously took it pretty personally." A sigh. "Look, Vaughan and I started our captaincies at about the same time and I've a lot of respect for him. He's achieved terrific things, he's a good leader and a decent guy."

Which is more than can be said, by him at least, of the Natal-raised Kevin Pietersen. He knows that British journalists, eager to explore the perceived loathing between him and Pietersen, will probably bring this up. And I would hate to disappoint him. I have interviewed Pietersen, I tell him, and he was pretty unequivocal in his disdain for Smith. But are we in the media pushing it to call them, as we have, "arch-enemies"?

"Look, I understand where it comes from. I wish he hadn't been so outspoken about South Africa, then I don't think the feud would have happened. Many players have left South Africa, in rugby and other sports, and have been generally pretty humble about it. But he would make these big, bold comments, and then as national captain I would walk into the press conference and these things would be thrown at me. Again, maybe I was too impulsive, but I'm very passionate about being South African and I felt compelled to defend my country."

Does he wish Pietersen had stayed in South Africa, and was now part of his team? I fancy I spot the slightest of grimaces. "No one doubts that he would bring added value. He's become an exciting cricketer, a world-class batter."

The reason Pietersen gives for quitting the South African cricket scene is the racial quota system, which he felt was impeding his progress. I ask Smith whether he recognises this as a valid argument?

"Look, transformation is something you have to face. We are a young sporting nation since readmission, and we face many challenges. One of them is developing the country, what's the right way to handle that, to make it a representative nation? That's not something we can hide from. But one thing I can say in terms of these players here is that I've never seen a team before in which no one doubts anyone else's ability. That shows we're getting somewhere."

And so to tomorrow's first Test at Lord's, the scene of that epic second double-century in 2003. While citing the "huge potential" of Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn, Smith is keen to suppress expectations of his formidable fast-bowling attack. "There are others who will play big roles for us. AB de Villiers is a free-flowing batter, and [slow left-armer] Paul Harris was very important for us on the sub-continent. We've played India this year, now England, then Australia, three of the biggest challenges a touring team can face. This [Test series] is an awesome challenge. We're brought up wanting to beat England, whether in cricket or rugby. We haven't done it here since readmission."

Despite Smith's heroics in 2003, the series was drawn, 2-2. If England can be defeated this time he will settle for much shorter stays at the wicket, though it's hard to imagine anything thrilling his watching parents as much as his buccaneering innings at Edgbaston and Lord's. "I couldn't have paid them back more for what they'd given me, and they're here again this year, which is great."

I ask him what his keenest memories are of the 2003 series. "I remember batting with Gary Kirsten at Lord's. He hadn't ever got 100 there, so when he reached 100, I remember that emotion. He was a guy I respected a lot. And when I got to 200 at Lord's, the emotion that came out of me then..." He shakes his head, rendered briefly speechless. "The biggest thing I remember are my team-mates, and their support. To be captain at that age you've got to have good people around you, otherwise it can be a horrible mess."

Now that he's been in the job for five years, his countryman Allan Donald has been singing his praises, recognising some of the virtues, but happily not the vices, of a predecessor as captain, the charismatic but also corrupt Hansie Cronje. Smith never met Cronje, which was one of the reasons he got the captaincy; it represented a clean break. What, I ask him, does he consider to be Cronje's legacy to South African cricket?

"I don't know enough about him to understand his legacy," he says, perhaps a little disingenuously. I must look sceptical, because he adds: "Look, I have a lot of respect for what he achieved, and what he gave to South Africa. He was a tough captain, who got the best out of his players."

A loud silence. "Look, the Hansie question is very difficult to answer. There is a huge fan base still behind him, while some can't stand him for what he did. Obviously what he did was wrong, but the fact that he owned up and was honest about it, that he put it out there, that put the game in a better place than it would have been if he'd kept quiet. The game is better prepared to deal with it [attempted match-fixing], and there are systems in place that never used to be there. So Hansie provided an education for cricket by owning up and repenting. Hopefully that can better the sport."

It is a good, fluent answer, but it begs one question: what have some of Smith's own antics done to better the sport? Sledging, for example. Does it have a place in the middle at Lord's tomorrow? "Look, the competitive nature of the game is what people love to watch. No one wants to watch boring sport, but there's a line of decency we all have to abide by. If I'm driving through Cape Town and I see kids in the street playing cricket, I feel like I'm doing something for the game. But those kids are going to pick up our habits, and sometimes you forget there are 50 cameras on you. It's intense out there."

It was never more intense than in Cape Town itself, in Smith's second Test innings, when he arrived at the crease to a sustained tirade from Australia's Matthew Hayden. "You know, you're not fucking good enough," Hayden said. "How the fuck are you going to handle Shane Warne when he's bowling in the rough? What the fuck are you going to do?"

We know this because Smith recounted it in an interview in 2002, overlooking the unwritten law that what is said in the middle, stays in the middle. "It was a mistake," he tells me now. "I just wanted people to know what I went through. I never meant to badmouth anybody."

Whatever, the episode perhaps explains why Smith operates as he sometimes does. He was baptised in the fiercest of crucibles that day in Cape Town, and he not only survived but thrived, smacking Warne over the top on his way to 68. It was a thrill, he adds, to team up with Warne this year in the Indian Premier League, for the Rajasthan Royals.

"He's an icon, and it was great to stand at slip and watch him bowl, instead of batting against him. Because Warney's the best I've ever known at making you feel like you're not good enough out there." A smile. He knows, and I know, that no such thought has ever really clouded his mind.

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