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.

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