Graeme Smith has been a very different man in England in 2008 to the one who captained South Africa here five years ago. Although he charmed many people as a 22-year-old, he also irritated just as many with his chin-first, confrontational approach. “I’ve grown up a lot since then,” he has said a hundred times since arrival.
The South African captain has ‘portrayed’ himself for the majority of his career rather than just ‘being’ himself but that has significantly changed in the last 12 months. In England he has simply been himself, whatever form that takes. Much of the ‘in-your-faceness’ which made him unpopular at home has gone. “It wasn’t really me, to be honest. I know how I was, and I know, now, how it was perceived. But I was a young man trying to make my mark and stamp my authority. Everybody seemed to be saying I couldn’t do the job. Obviously I was determined to prove them wrong,” Smith said.
Clearly there are some South African fans for whom bitching about ‘Biff’ has become an addictive pastime and, perhaps, nothing will change that. But there has been precious little fuel for their fire in England so far. His equilibrium has been undisturbed, his demeanour unruffled and, while his patience has been tested by hours and hours of media commitments, it has barely been stretched, let alone snapped.
The only moment his calm appeared to be affected was in the moments before his final press conference on the day before the Lord’s Test. It was held in the Lord’s Museum. It was pouring with rain outside and had been for over eight hours. He entered in his rain jacket, smiling and shaking his head at the elements.
He walked past the bronze bust of WG Grace and a hundred other famous cricketing artifacts and mementoes. Scorecards, bats and balls and boots worn by some of the greatest cricketers of all time during some of the most famous contests.
Then, just before he reached the room in which the media were waiting, in the final display cabinet, something caught his eye. It was a pair of batting gloves. It was a pair of his batting gloves. A pair of batting gloves belonging to Graeme Smith. In the Lord’s Museum.
“I remember now, they asked me for something to commemorate the innings. But everything was such a mad rush in the days after the match that I completely forgot. I gave them the gloves but that was the last I thought of it. I didn’t know they were for the Museum. I thought maybe they were for a charity. It didn’t sink in,” Smith said.
He stood for several seconds, looking at his gloves resting on top of Makhaya Ntini’s bowling boots. The captain scored 259, the highest score ever by a non-Englishman at Lord’s, but his effort was comfortably matched by Ntini’s 10-wicket match haul and they deservedly shared the man-of-the-macth award.
“Wonderful memories, incredible memories. I just hope I can recreate the feeling this time around. I came into the 2003 Test in great form but this time I’ve been battling injury and have only had one innings in two months. But you never know. This place inspires you, really lifts you,” Smith said.
What he didn’t say was: “I can’t believe there is an exhibit about me in the Lord’s Museum. Was that really me?”
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