View from the Vauxhall End: Second to Bradman
Graeme Smith's hundred continued a phenomenal record in England, which is second only to The Don
For a partisan crowd, England cricket supporters appreciate the efforts of opponents more than most supporters.
Last year, there was a hum of anticipation followed by applause whenever Sachin Tendulkar walked to the crease and an almost palpable excitement suffused the crowd whenever Chris Gayle took guard in the recent ODI series.
Even panto villain Ricky Ponting would provoke comments like, “I hope we get him early, but I wouldn't mind seeing him bat for a session or two.”
But the overseas batsman with the best record in England since Don Bradman wiped the tear from his eye on this ground in 1948, elicits little in the way of affection and even less in anticipatory excitement, Not that Graeme Smith cares – he'll point to the scorebook as a riposte.
The South African skipper is on his third tour of England and his 131 runs, so carefully accumulated on Days Two and Three, boosted his aggregate in this country to 1,214 runs at 76. That's an astonishing record especially when one considers that almost all those runs have been scored in tight matches in the midst of tight series, going in first to face the new ball, all the while dealing with changing conditions underfoot and overhead.
Smith's innings was a microcosm of his career in England. He arrived at the crease with the match evenly poised. England's 385 was not a bad score, but it could only be deemed a good score once England's bowlers had their chance to exploit whatever swing, seam and spin was available. After losing his opening partner early on, the anchor was dropped as Smith made sure he was there at the close.
In the first hour on Saturday, Smith toughed it out. The ball was left, but not with the tall elegance that Alastair Cook leaves it outside off stump, but with Smith's couched, Joe Frazier like, shuffle forwards. Few real attacking shots were played – nudges and deflections got him to his 50 off 160 balls, the slowest of his career.
Sensing that the hard yards had been run, Smith's bottom hand got to work and he raced to his century in just 41 more balls, savouring the personal achievement of scoring 100 in his 100th Test, reaching the landmark with a slashing cut just before lunch.
After the break, Smith knew England would come at him hard, and circumspection was once more the percentage approach, so Smith spent 72 balls acquiring the final 31 runs of an innings he will never forget.
Whether it will live as long in the crowd's memory is more open to question. Neutrals and England supporters are more likely to recall Amla's fluent strokeplay, a tight technique unwrapped to punch the ball wristily either side of the off-side fielders from right under his eyes, as he cruised past his skipper's score.
But there's more than one way to play this gloriously complex game and once a batsman finds a way that works, it's a good idea to stick with it. And as the old cliché has it and Graeme Smith proves over and over again – it's not how, it's how many.