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
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Popes current and former won't be watching the football together
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial