Sport

Cricket's reluctant knight

Neil Manthorp

'Captain slayer', Graeme Smith would prefer his legacy to be the Proteas retaining the top spot for a few years.

Andrew Strauss and Graeme Smith at the toss at Headingley earlier this month. (Getty)

Several weeks before South Africa embarked on the current tour to England Graeme Smith pondered the possibility of a third consecutive England captain falling on his sword after a demoralising encounter with the Proteas, with him at the helm. It was not something he sought. "Slayer of England captains" was a headline writer's dream, not his.

Fortunately for Smith, or so he thought at the time, Andrew Strauss made back-to-back centuries against the West Indies in the series that immediately preceded South Africa's arrival and he assumed it was not a subject he would have to deal with.

"It had occurred to me that Andrew might consider it if we won the Test series, and won it well, but I must say it was a relief when he scored those hundreds because I was sure that made him safe to carry on until the Ashes. I really didn't want to have to be 'credited' with another resignation," Smith said.

Well, now he does. When Strauss terminated his relationship with the game at every playing level on Wednesday, there were many reasons given, and they were all legitimate. The one reason not given - the embarrassing breakdown in relations between Strauss and Kevin Pietersen - was probably legitimate. But history will remember one reason above all others. Graeme Craig Smith.

Strauss was utterly beaten in the hours after the final Test at Lord's, not just as a cricketer or a captain, but as the decent sportsman and human being he has always been. There was a sense of Roberto Duran's "no más" resignation to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980. But it was not just the punches in the ring, it was those outside it. Asked about his immediate future after Lord's, Strauss replied: "I'm going to take some time off and go away with my family. I'll consider everything after a break."

Without being there or even hearing the sentence recorded, half a dozen former international players knew without a doubt - even on second-hand evidence - that Strauss was finished. "The first doubt is the last; it is the beginning of the end," said one of England's most famous captains. "When you have that much doubt there's never a way back. Andrew obviously realised that as soon as his holiday started. Perhaps he knew it already."

Dynasty
Four years ago Smith and coach Mickey Arthur spoke about creating a "dynasty" and leaving a "legacy" after beating England and then Australia on their own turf. They were well-intentioned goals but sounded as premature as they subsequently proved to be. Barely a trench had been dug, let alone a foundation laid, yet visions of a 60-storey tower were being imagined.

This time South Africa reach for the skies with a shared captaincy and a coach who has a healthy respect for heights, if not a fear of them. Gary Kirsten's achievement in taking India to the number one Test ranking was far more difficult than getting South Africa there, and their plunge down the ladder ever since has been as gaudily watchable as a car crash. His desire for that not to repeat itself has been evident.

Smith has spoken of "achieving nothing yet" after deposing England as the best Test team and AB de Villiers said he was "proud" of becoming the number one ODI (one day international) side but that "was never our goal". Smith's "legacy" dream is to remain at number one for a period of two or three years (emulating the Australians of the late 1990s and early 2000s) and De Villiers has no interest in shying away from the target of winning tournaments - "The Champions Trophy next year would be nice but the World Cup in 2015 is our ultimate goal."

The difference between this tour and the last one in 2008 is that players are motivated as never before to finish on a high. Too many were suffering emotional hangovers from a historic Test series victory and the ODI series was an embarrassment. This time, half a dozen players are screaming out to display their wares and take their chance. South African cricket has never been so strong.

Amla bowled over by frenzy
The media demands on Graeme Smith's time in 2003 following back-to-back double centuries outdid any made on a foreign player in England in recorded history.

Sir Donald Bradman had many interview requests, but the great Australian did not have to contend with the number of radio stations, newspapers and "other" media outlets that Hashim Amla has had to contend with on this tour.

If Amla had agreed to every request made of him, and with a strict limit of 15 minutes per interview, he would have spent about 36 hours simply speaking in the past two weeks. That was before his astonishing 150 in the second one day international match on Tuesday.

"I will always talk to anybody, but time is a factor beyond my control," says the mighty Amla.

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