It’s shaping up to be a big week for Graeme Smith. On Monday, he announced his wife is expecting the couple’s second child later this year. On Friday, he will turn 32 and also become the first person to captain a team in 100 Tests, when he leads South Africa against Pakistan in Johannesburg.
Cricket South Africa (CSA) are pulling out all the stops to celebrate his achievement. The first day of the Test has been declared ‘Biff day’, after Smith’s nickname. Those in attendance at the match will sing Happy Birthday to him during one of the intervals and there is talk that a cake will be brought onto the field with candles for him to blow out.
Smith has been given a hospitality suite for his family and friends’ use on the day. Among the other important guests expected to be in attendance is the country’s sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, who will take time out of his football duties at the African Nations’ Cup to be at the cricket.
CSA have also displayed a giant shirt, with the details of all of Smith’s centuries printed on it, on the wall of a popular sports clothing store in a mall in Johannesburg. Supporters have been invited to write a personal message on the whites and some of them will appear on the scoreboard during the match.
For a man who struggled for affection from fans for a long time, the current outpouring is quite moving. At a signing session at the mall, Smith lapped it all up. He appeared completely relaxed as he signed autographs and posed for photographs.
His team-mates were full of praise as well. For most of them, he is the only Test captain they have known and he has overseen their development and integration into the side. “Graeme has been an outstanding leader. He deserves all the credit that comes his way,” Vernon Philander said.
“A hundred Tests as captain – just to play 100 Tests is a momentous feat. When you’re growing up, you don’t imagine that you are going to play so much,” Hashim Amla said. “He’s taken on so much responsibility and the fact that he’s still here and putting in big performances for the team is a tribute to the person he is and the commitment he has given to the team.”
Amla also added a little bait for the occasion. “He got a hundred in his 100th Test, and it would be nice if he made a contribution like that and helped us win the game.” Smith played his 100th Test at The Oval in July last year and scored a century to contribute to South Africa’s series lead.
Jacques Kallis is the only member of the current squad to have played under different leaders, which means he is also the only one to have been alongside Smith for his entire career. Kallis has been witness to Smith’s uncomfortable start and subsequent maturing and believes the changes have been pronounced.
“To achieve what he has achieved, I don’t think will be achieved very soon again, if ever,” Kallis said. “He’s proved a lot of people wrong. He’s stood up and faced the criticism and produced the results.
“He leads from the front and that’s what you want in a leader. If he says something he’ll be the first guy to go forward and do it. He’s opening the batting, so he’s getting out there first and setting the tone and the example. He’s an in-your-face kind of guy who will take on challenges and never back down. He doesn’t ask any player to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. There are times to be brash and there are times to absorb the pressure and that’s what he’s developed over the years. He’s learnt when to be which character which has probably been his biggest improvement as a captain.”
As testament to his ability to lead by example, Smith holds an unusual record. On each of the 26 times he has scored a Test hundred, South Africa have either drawn or won the match. It is a statistic he was only made aware of during his century in Adelaide and said it was something that he was “very proud of.”
Although Smith lives and plays his cricket in Cape Town, he is originally from Johannesburg and so this will effectively be a “home” celebration. Smith completed his schooling at the King Edward VII High School and played a handful of matches for Gauteng before he was snapped up by Western Province. He was made captain at the age of 22 and is currently in his tenth year in the job, having captained South Africa in 98 Tests and the World XI in one.