By SB Tang
Graeme Smith is a left-handed South African batsman.
When he arrives at the crease, he sets up to face the bowling with the toe of his back foot in line with his off-stump.
As the bowler runs in, he squats down so low that, for a brief moment, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve accidentally walked in on the furious workout session of a reedy, bespectacled teenager (wearing a bodybuilding.com t-shirt) who dreams of sculpting a Stallone-like physique so that he can one day ask Ja’mie King to his year 11 formal.
As the bowler releases the ball, he starts to shuffle even further across his stumps. By the time he actually plays the ball, his head is well outside his off-stump and he is covering his middle and off stumps with both his pads. His leg stump is at least partially exposed. This makes him a prime candidate to be bowled around his legs by a left-arm swing bowler. Indeed, an 18 year old Mohammad Amir dismissed Simon Katich — another obdurate left-handed leg-to-off shuffler — in that fashion at Headingley in July 2010. Fortunately for Smith, world-class-left-arm-swing-bowlers-who-aren’t-serving-five-year-bans-for-spot-fixing are about as easy to find as moral human beings in House Lannister.
A few weeks ago, I had the misfortune of spending 6.12 hours of my lowly existence watching Smith bat in a Test match against England. Sometime after lunch on the third day — probably after he greedily shovelled the ball through mid-wicket with his bottom-hand for the one googolith time — it hit me: Smith looks like an enthusiastic club batsman who’s popped to the toilet during a drinks break, discovered — to his abject horror as he’s sat down — that his teammates have lined the toilet seat with industrial-strength superglue, and is now desperately flailing (with little success) to get up.
Come to think of it, that’s exactly the kind of prank his old arch-nemeses, the great Australian side circa 1995 to 2007, would have pulled. This, after all, was the team that, even whilst they were dominating world cricket, managed to find the time to chuck pieces of cheese at each other on the plane, which sounds harmless enough, until you realise that each piece of cheese had been expertly planted with a field of toothpicks. To be fair, the cheese was thrown in response to a strangulation executed with complimentary business class socks.
Len Hutton once described a tour of Australia as follows: “the pitches are hard, the ball is hard and the men are hard. You have to be harder to beat them.” Yup, Australian men are hard alright — we attack each other with weaponised dairy products.
Consider the pranks on tour enjoyed by some of the world’s current leading international sports teams.
The team which currently sits atop the world rankings in T20 and Test cricket features one prominent member who filmed a teammate coming out of the bathroom in various states of womanly undress. (They’re English.)
As for the latest incarnation of the US Dream Team, the worst that they can manage is dressing up a teammate as Bernie from Weekend At Bernie’s whilst he’s asleep on the plane.
All pretty tame stuff compared with cheese-maces and sock-asphyxiation.
Smith, despite his ungainly appearance at the crease and unorthodox technique, possesses a record as a Test opener which is beyond reproach — 8173 runs at an average of 50.14 with 25 centuries, including four double centuries. He stands (or, perhaps more accurately, squats) as proof, if any further was needed, of the enduring wisdom of Sir Donald Bradman’s philosophy on batting technique:
I experimented — worked out the pros and cons — and eventually decided not to change my [unconventional] natural grip. Throughout a long career my grip caused many arguments but I think it is sufficient to prove that any young player should be allowed to develop his own natural style providing he is not revealing an obvious error. A player is not necessarily wrong just because he is different.