Graeme Smith retires: Brilliant but peculiar 'Biff' bows out at the right time

South Africa's unorthodox captain has done superbly to lead his team for over 100 Tests but his eye, and possibly his nerve, have gone

Cape Town

When the chairman of selectors phoned Graeme Smith to offer him the job as South African captain – only a year into his international career – the 22-year-old says he spent the next 10 minutes parked on the side of the road, his heart pounding. He was to take over the reins from Shaun Pollock, South Africa's paceman who had miscalculated his country out of the 2003 World Cup in front of disbelieving home fans.

"I was very proud but extremely nervous and fearful about what lay ahead," Smith said much later.

Not only was he inexperienced on the field, Smith hardly seemed subtle enough to handle the complexities of sporting leadership in post-apartheid South Africa. He was under pressure to lead a national cricket team with the politically correct mix of races. There were demands to include more non-white players while some, in Smith's view, did not merit selection. There were outbreaks of maladmistration and allegations of corruption inside South African cricket itself. And Smith also had to deal with international cricket politics, made toxic by sub-continental dominance that has made South Africa suffer some strangely parsimonious Test allocations.

Given the cricketing and political pressures he has faced it is remarkable that, during the 2012 winning tour of England, Smith could celebrate leading his country a world record 100 times in Test matches. While winning in England he also achieved his most driving ambition: for his country to become the top Test nation. He has also scored by far the most runs of any player while a Test captain.

On his first major tour as captain, Smith batted brilliantly, scoring two double-tons – 277 and 259 sandwiched between an 85 – in the first two Tests against England. Due to his grinding determination Smith also has an astonishing Test average in the pitch-deteriorating fourth innings of 51.96, with his 154 not out at Edgbaston to win the third Test against England in 2008 being one of his four last-innings centuries.

His bludgeoning determination also emerged when his team needed to beat Australia in a one-dayer after the Aussies had hit a world record score. Smith smashed 90 runs off 58 balls and his side overtook a seemingly impossible 434 with one wicket remaining.

Yet despite his early batting successes, Smith says it took him five years before he became at ease with the job of captain. He had needed that time to adjust his arrogant public demeanour, which he admits hid an inner insecurity.

Part of this stemmed from his peculiarly cramped bottom-handed batting style which gained him the nickname, coined by a team-mate, Biff. It is derived from the Afrikaans word biffel for a buffalo – a creature that looks ungainly but is frightening. Now he uses it as his hashtag.

For most of his Test career he averaged over 50, until an ankle injury and then the last two series where he has struggled horribly. In the current three-Test series against Australia he scored just 45 runs for an abject average of 7.5 – dismissed four times by the pace of Mitchell Johnson off 13 balls, making him a Johnson victim nine times in 10 Tests.

The former South Africa and Nottinghamshire captain Clive Rice says Smith's retirement came not a moment too soon. His technical inadequacies – especially facing left-arm pace – have been magnified by the ageing process, Rice told The Independent.

Rice also believes Smith has lost his nerve as a leader. As evidence he points to Smith "choking" as he paced up and down the dressing-room when South Africa needed just 16 runs to beat India last December in a fourth-innings chase that would have been by far a world record. Smith's batsmen blocked the remaining 18 balls before Dale Steyn slammed a final-ball six in frustration, leaving South Africa eight runs short of their target of 458 with three wickets in hand.

"It was deeply disappointing," says Rice, "and by no means the first time Smith and his team have choked." Smith made the bizarre excuse that he had left it to the two batsmen on the pitch to decide whether to chase the runs. If so it was a "terrible dereliction of the duty of a captain – which Aussie leader would have chickened out like that?" Rice asked.

A previous example was when Smith led his country, the favourites, to defeat against New Zealand in the 2011 World Cup. After this, Smith was deposed as the one-day team's leader. He exacerbated things by not coming home with his team, choosing to holiday in Ireland with his new Irish wife. He says the furore – and the fact that he was booed from then on at every game back home – meant "my own self-esteem and self-confidence really took a whack," he later said.

Yet he fought back, letting his bat do the talking with a match-winning Test century against Australia in Cape Town. "I've been proud of the way I am able to consistently perform in my own game," he said.

Rumblings about his time being up after the India run-chase "choke" were held at bay by an easy win in the second Test. But his role as leader was sure to be under scrutiny following the near-certain series defeat against Australia.

Smith's future is not clear. Playing lucratively for Surrey, he can use his Irish dual citizenship as a passport to "local player" status, so elongating his first-class career. His ambition was to play in a limited-overs World Cup again. That dream has died – or has it? In four years' time he could qualify to play in a World Cup again – for Ireland. It is unlikely. But international cricket is a strange game, and Biff was a peculiar – if memorable – practitioner of it.

Super Smith: Captain in numbers

Graeme Smith played the most international Tests as captain (109), scored the most runs as captain (8,656), as well as boasting statistics to challenge the very best:

South Africa Test record

Matches 117

Innings 203

Runs 9,257

Best 277

Average 48.72

100s 27

50s 38

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Johnny Handle, Northumberland, Ted Relph, President of Lakeland Dialect Society, and Sid Calderbank, Lancashire, founder of the National Dialect Day
newsMeet the enthusiasts determined to stop them dying out
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross. Argyll, has remained derelict for more than 25 years
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game