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?
REX/Eye Candy
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?