ONLY last summer in July, I witnessed the ebullient South African captain Graeme Smith score a hundred in his 100th Test at The Oval against England to join the likes of Colin Cowdrey, Javed Miandad, Gordon Greenidge, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Alec Stewart and Ricky Ponting who achieved the feat before him. This was no mean achievement for a man who at a very young age of 22 was handed the captaincy of his country in 2003.
Smith’s continued presence at the helm of South African cricket team since making his Test debut against Australia at Cape Town in 2002 has now brought him closer to yet another landmark which no other cricketing great has ever managed to achieve; And that is leading his country for the 100th time as captain.
Today at The Wanderers, when he steps into the middle in the first of the three Tests against Pakistan, he will undoubtedly receive a standing ovation which he would thoroughly deserve, whether he comes on to bat first or take the field.
In 99 Tests as captain he has a formidable record of 47 wins, 26 loses and 26 drawn games.
To continue to show as much enthusiasm as Smith did when he began his career could not have been achieved without him being fully determined and dedicated to the game that he grew up playing.
Prior to Smith, the record for the highest number of Tests captained rested with Australia’s Allan Border who led his team in as many as 93 Tests between 1984 and 1994.
It is also a credit to Smith, who is a left-hander of pristine quality, that his consistency as a player has seldom let him down. For a batsman opening the innings and facing the fastest men in business and some quality spinners, his job has never been an easy one. But sheer concentration and focus on the game has kept him going and his average of 50-plus in Tests is ample proof of that.
The South African cultural minister, speaking during the press conference held by Smith and Misbah-ul-Haq on Thursday, paid rich tribute to Proteas skipper, describing him as a ‘Paragon of human perfection’.
When Smith was asked by mediamen if he really is a paragon as described by the minister, Smith had a big laugh and said: “I do not know what is a paragon.” He was obviously amused by the minister’s comment.
His landmark Test may even become more memorable if he scores a hundred in it. But he is also aware of the fact that Pakistan, led by Misbah, is not going to be pushovers as were the Kiwis in the recent series against them.
“We are aware of their potential and not going to relax at any time. A Test match is a Test match no matter who is in the opposition,” said Smith during the presser.
At Wanderers, Pakistan played their first Test against South Africa in 1993-94 and lost. Since then, in 18 Tests between the two nations, South Africa have won eight and Pakistan three which is an impressive performance by the home team.
For Misbah this series is one which will put him through his stiffest test as Pakistan captain. His record is impressive and he does have the knack of leading a team which in all calculations is as unpredictable as it has always been, even in good times.
Misbah indicated on Thursday that this series is his biggest challenge because the formidable South Africans are playing on their own turf and is the world’s top ranking team. With a pace battery comprising Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Jacques Kallis, the Proteas can make any side uncomfortable on their day, especially on the bouncy and variable tracks of South Africa.
Their batting is strong too with Smith, Alviro Petersen, Kallis, Hashim Amla and A.B. de Villiers all top players.
Pakistan’s strength is in their bowling with Umar Gul, Junaid Khan and Irfan raring to go at the opposition alongwith the world’s leading spinner Saeed Ajmal and all-rounder Mohammad Hafeez.
If Younis Khan, Nasir Jamshed — the likely debutant — Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Misbah lend enough support to the bowlers, the first Test will be a really exciting contest.
South Africans, naturally, are the favourites in the series but Pakistan have the potential of creating upsets. We have known that for a long time and this series will not be any different.