Smith answers snipers with the ultimate captain's innings

First Test: South African leader's imposing presence belies his inexperience
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The Independent Online

Captain Smith walked wearily back to the pavilion, paused, and pirouetted with his bat above his head to acknowledge the standing ovation from a generous Edgbaston crowd. He had finally run out of puff at 2.22pm after nine hours at the crease. His 277 accounted for half South Africa's runs at the time, and his peremptory cross-batted slog to James Anderson on the midwicket boundary occurred only a couple of minutes after he had become his country's highest scoring Test batsman.

At lunch he had proposed to push on, but his team-mates had other ideas. "The boys sat me down and said that they wanted the record." He confessed that he finally felt a little nervous when he was on 275. He remembered that Gary Kirsten had been dismissed when he equalled Daryll Cullinan's record 275, and he wanted this one for his young team. "Things like this make a difference to morale," he said.

This was also an innings of immense importance for Graeme Smith himself. He is only 22 - only the Nawab of Pataudi was younger on his appointment as Test captain. This is only Smith's 11th Test and, in his third match as captain, he has secured his position in the job, probably for a decade. It was an answer to critics in South Africa who denounced his selection because of his youth, though Smith diplomatically rejected that interpretation. "I haven't been on this tour to prove them wrong. I'm here to improve South African cricket," he said.

Impressive records trip off the tongue, but there are others that emphasise the achievement. No one has scored more runs on a debut in England v South Africa Tests. At 209 he passed the highest Test score by a South African captain. At 237 he reached the highest score by a South African in England. When he was out he was only nine runs short of the highest-ever Test score at Edgbaston. (Peter May is the record-holder.)

It was, said Darren Gough when play was over, "a top Test innings. As good as you'll see". Smith's performance was memorable for its relentless accumulation rather that its elegance. He was lucky. A fortnight ago at Lord's he spoke of the regularity with which the ball caught the edge of the bat. Here the reverse has been true. His fondness for hitting the ball across the line means he ought to be vulnerable, but he never looked it and he earned his luck.

Photographers say Smith is a hard subject. There are no flourishes with the bat - at least, not until he waves to the spectators. Movement is functional but his height and his build make him a powerful hitter.

Smith's inexperience does not show, either on or off the field. At the wicket he is an imposing presence, taller than all the fielders crowding him with the exception of Andrew Flintoff, now promoted to first slip. Between balls he preserves his concentration by strolling head down towards point.

It might or might not have been inexperience that caused him to blurt out the full measure of the obscene language the Australian players used to sledge him on his Test debut early in 2002. It drew attention to him since he had not been afraid to speak out. The message from Steve Waugh's sledgers had been that Smith was not good enough for Test cricket. They had misjudged their man. A little over a year later he had been identified as the leader of the post-Cronje generation.

Off the field he is talkative, cheerful and obliging. No Captain Grumpy he. He appears at the end of the day and answers reporters' questions at length until there are no more. Perhaps he likes the sound of his own voice, but he did not duck when awkward questions were asked about the state of the team's preparation.

He admitted it was a young team that is still feeling its way. Pre-match hype suggested that South Africa would struggle against England's new and old pacemen. Some struggle. In 145 overs at Edgbaston they seem to have found their way.

Smith may be only 22 but he points out that since the age of 12 he does not have much experience of not being captain. And he has never denied a confrontational nature. There are reports of a clash with Shaun Pollock in a provincial game in South Africa recently and Smith frankly admits that he and Jacques Rudolph have been at each other's throats on the field. "I enjoy [the confrontational side] because of the passion and determination involved," he told Neil Manthorp last month.

He said it is the job of a batsman who represents his country to dominate the bowler: "You've got to do all you can to get the upper hand." Yesterday he did all he could and it was quite enough.