JOHANNESBURG, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Graeme Smith will become the first cricketer to captain 100 tests when he leads South Africa out against Pakistan on Friday, his 32nd birthday.
“To achieve what he has achieved, I don’t think will be achieved very soon again, if ever,” team mate Jacques Kallis told reporters in the build-up to the Johannesburg test.
Friday at the Wanderers has been declared ‘Biff Day’ in a nod to the nickname that exemplifies Smith’s dogged nature and bruising style.
“He’s very driven to make the team the best it can possibly be, while at the same time maintaining his own high level of play,” his predecessor Shaun Pollock told Johannesburg’s The Star newspaper.
With South Africa ranked the top test team, Smith has been basking in the adulation of his country in the days leading up to the test.
It was not always so for a man propelled into the job at the age of 22 and in only his ninth test some 10 years ago.
“When he took over there were still a lot of political issues that impacted on the team and it’s not been easy on him,” said Ali Bacher, former test captain and administrator.
By his own admission Smith battled with the job in the beginning. His form with the bat was good but off the field he was out of his depth, targeted by the opposition and media. His defence was to come across as brash and arrogant.
“Back then I thought captaining was just an on-field thing, making some decisions and showing some leadership; little did I know about what happened behind the scenes, the selection issues and the politics,” Smith said in a television special to mark his achievement.
“Wherever I went early on teams were taking me on, the media was taking me on, and that was where I developed this hardness, this arrogance. It was my way of protecting myself and showing I can handle whatever is thrown my way. I came across in probably a very strong and not a very well-liked way.”
The rough edges have been tempered by more recent success as Smith led his side to back-to-back Test series wins in England and Australia and top place in the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings.
His win ratio in tests is bettered only by the great Australian and West Indian sides of the last three decades.
“Being experienced now I see things differently but you have to have a lot of ‘want’ to do the job because it is a lot of pressure, it is a lot of time and effort, a lot of strain on you and the people around you,” Smith said.
“I sometimes struggle to comprehend that I am so close to such a massive milestone. When I took over at the age of 22 I was just trying to make sure the next over was good enough.” (Editing by Clare Fallon)