Unbending Smith strikes a familiar chord

It may not be music to English ears, but in his 100th Test the South African captain continues to grind out durable centuries

The Oval

We have heard this tune before. Like Old King Cole, Graeme Smith has so often called for his pipe in the middle of the night, not to mention his fiddlers three, when he has taken guard on English soil. In 2003 he seemed to bat eight days a week. Five years later his superb undefeated century at Edgbaston was ultimately the difference between the teams, and now, in his 100th Test, he has reintroduced him with the kind of long, durable hundred with which we have become familiar.

When people talk of great cricketers of the modern age, Smith tends to be overlooked. True, when it comes to melody he is no Orpheus. There are many others one might prefer to hear trilling a flute, but he has 10 followers in his dressing room, and those are the only ones he needs. They were certainly happy men last night. Captain of South Africa at the age of 22, Smith remains at the helm, unbending as an Old Testament prophet and twice as stern.

It takes exceptional maturity to inhabit so public a role at such an age, while opening the batting. Smith has succeeded mightily. That he has also cleared the nest fouled so disgracefully by Hansie Cronje earns an additional mark. After a decade of solid achievement as batsman and leader, he makes a most imposing figurehead; a cricketer, and man, of real substance.

Which begs a question: what is greatness? We are constantly told that Jacques Kallis is a "great" of the modern game, but is he? A true great, that is, not merely a great accumulator of runs? It has been written on these pages that he is, "arguably", the greatest all-rounder in the game's history. Is he, by Jove? One might as well argue that Haydn was a greater composer than Beethoven because he wrote more than 100 symphonies to his pupil's nine, but to do that you would have to be unfeasibly bold.

For such a plain cricketer Kallis is a mystery. The bare facts of his career roll in like Atlantic breakers – more Test runs than all others save three, with 42 centuries; 278 wickets; and 181 catches pouched in those bucket-like hands. Yet the thing is, not many folk can recall an innings he played, or even a stroke. Does anybody, beyond his family and circle of friends, feel a quickening of the pulse when he walks to the crease?

There is no "Kallis match" to relive, as one may recall the great moments of Ian Botham or Andrew Flintoff, two men who really did change games. As for GSA Sobers, KR Miller and MJ Procter, their names bring a smile of recognition, for they were loved by all who saw them. Among his great contemporaries, does anybody really think Kallis belongs in the same category as Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting? Or, for that matter, Mahela Jayawardene, whose batsmanship is a reminder that cricket is a matter of aesthetics, not merely the compilation of runs

The measure of greatness in cricket, perhaps more than any other sport, means more than counting numbers. Botham, for instance, averaged 34 with the bat, which means he is 22 runs lighter than Kallis, but he won more matches, and that is surely the most reliable test. Great players win matches and while Kallis has contributed significantly to South Africa's success in recent years ("Facts! Facts! Mr Nickleby!"), he is essentially one of life's Roundheads. In his attritional batting and his defensive bowling he has spent his career with the brakes on and has often given the impression, with a bat in his hand, that his needs are at least as great as the team's.

And there's the rub. South Africa have consistently failed to take the final step that would mark them as an exceptional team, not just one with some outstanding players. It is a matter of will and character, and too often they have preferred the minor key when greatness calls for a joyous blast of C major.

Brian Glanville, the great football writer, once referred to Liverpool's "inspired pedestrianism" (in the days before Dalglish and Souness), and there is something of that in South African cricket. They grind you down, they rarely knock you out. Greatness, in large part, is a matter of imagination. To win all, as the Australians have proved since Mark Taylor refined the team he inherited from Allan Border, and in turn handed on to Steve Waugh, you must take risks. England did that in 2005, when Michael Vaughan instructed his players to be bold. But boldness and South African cricket make poor partners. At least these days. They were very well acquainted when the youthful BA Richards joined forces with Procter and RG Pollock.

A friend recalled watching Richards and Pollock taking the Australian bowlers apart at Durban in 1970. Had that team stayed together, who knows what it might have accomplished? Greatness, for sure, of the kind that has eluded their successors. Immortality, probably. Many will tell you that Barry Richards was the purest batsman they ever saw.

When Kallis retires they may well put up a statue in his honour to celebrate his life and deeds. If they do, no edifice will more closely resemble its subject: cold, immovable, compelling admiration, not affection. Among tunesmiths his is a melody played in a penny arcade. But just count those pennies. And his captain's.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones