There’s been a tendency amoungst South African’s to not give our sports stars due respect. We tend to hide behind the bumbling line of keeping them humble and grounded. It’s the casualness of the South African spirit that leads us to want to treat everyone as equals when the rest of the world hoists them as high as possible. It’s that sense that they, as sportsmen and women, are doing what we’d love to be doing, and getting paid, so why should I look up to them. We’re a sports mad country that likes nothing better to do then have a braai and watching our teams. That’s the meat of it. We support our team, and not the individual.
Sometimes individuals bring teams together, sometimes they rescue teams, and sometimes they lift a nation. The team ethos is admirable and comes from a good place, but why not show pride and respect to our heroes? We’ve had the world greatest all rounder, and our best ever batsman, Jacque Kallis retire recently, and he’s the prime example, a player who was revered more outside his own country than in it. Now that he’s no longer playing and we move forward trying to fill that gap cricket fans in South Africa will begin to realise just what a special player he was.
The same can be said for Graeme Smith, probably the most divisive cricketer in the country. Picked as captain at just 22, the brash opening batsman who would go on to lead his country to the number one ranked test team, became the first captain in the game to lead in over 100 tests, set records for fourth innings winning chases, and captain for an unbelievable 11 years, yet Smith has never been the most popular player amongst the South African public. His stats have been rehashed all over the broadcast media, TV, print and online, and there’s no need to delve into the numbers again here, but it’s safe to say as a player he was amongst the best, and as a captain he was the best. Some might point to that last statement, particularly those in Australia who would suggest Waugh and Ponting would claim that accolade, and like anything in sport, it’s all opinion based. What I would say though is his record in fourth innings chases can’t be beat, he opened the batting, the most difficult position, for his entire career and still laid the foundation through weight of runs for South Africa’s victories, and the most important element I think, he took his team to number one in Tests, and has been unbeaten away from home since 2006 (incidentally Smith missed this series, Ashwell Prince captained the team that lost to Sri Lanka, so Smith has not lost an away series in over 8 years) and did it all without a Shane Warne, a luxury both Waugh and Ponting had. He also captained for 11 years. The mental toll that will take on anyone can not be underestimated, and the toll it can take on a South African captain, who has the added pressure of racial politics, World Cup failures, and a less than supportive public to deal with.
Through all this Smith has been dignified and represented his country with pride and honor. As a cricket he is due respect, and gets that from the rest of the world, but as a man he has earned it. The tide has changed with a new generation in South Africa, players like AB De Villiers, Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla are getting the trust and support that the public never gave to Kalls, Boucher and Smith. Lets hope that continues and that South African’s learn that it’s okay to support your own stars. For now though lets show Graeme Smith, a Proteas legend, the respect and admiration he was denied as a player.