During the Oval Test, Shane Warne described Graeme Smith as 'a gentle soul'. Warnie had formed this unlikely view during the downtime the pair shared at Rajasthan Royals, and while they probably weren't nipping off together to recreate Lady Di's famous pose in front of the Taj Mahal just for japes, it was telling that one of cricket's uncompromising characters was prepared to accept another in such a way.
Everything about Smith's public persona mitigates against the notion, and it seemed even more incongruous while he undertook his umpteenth mighty blunting of England's bowlers, obscuring the stumps, blotting out hope, casting shade and spreading doubt. Iron-jawed, thin-lipped, unshaven, gazing at the world through the same sun-bound squint as Steve Waugh, he is both a prosaic destroyer and a technical enigma.
Like a giant Heath Robinson engine, Smith's batting shouldn't work. Recreated under scientific conditions with another player, it almost certainly wouldn't. He has scored the bulk of his eight thousand plus Test match runs with half a bat for a start, his choking grip offering a closed face to the world. A right arm bowler pushing a delivery across Smith's ample bow and away towards the slips might find himself being driven anywhere from mid-on to backward square leg, the ball flying from a semi-visible slither of willow. However wide the cherry might be spearing, Smith's head will probably still be outside of it, his weight rolling across the crease behind, hence England's fleeting period of success against him when Matthew Hoggard brought the ball late and fast back into his pads.
The laundry list of shots Smith cannot hit is long, and even if he could cover drive, would anyone want to watch him do it? It's one of the great cosmic jokes that he is so often partnered with the symphonic Hashim Amla, the brutal orthodoxy of Kallis, the mercurial AB de Villiers.
Yet Smith has a daunting physicality that not even the Leviathan Kallis can match. He succeeds in part because of his scale. Cricket is a finely calibrated game, the size and weight of bat, ball and stumps, the length of the pitch, the distance to the boundary allow players of all sizes and various skills to compete. James Taylor at five feet four, can face Morne Morkel at six feet six, in a contest that few other arenas would allow. Scale, though, has its edges as Will Jefferson has demonstrated. Graeme Smith is on the right side of that edge, a man whose odd technique combines with his size and shape to offer a unique proposition. He has a brilliant eye - he must have to keep middling the ball with such a sharply angled bat - and by standing the way he does, he all but eliminates the target.
His approach offers a different psychological challenge to the bowler. He barely sees the stumps and he will be hit into odd areas often and deliberately. It's hard to practice for a batsman like Smith because there is no other batsman like Smith. And because he doesn't look like he should be able to bat, there is a certain tiny, rat-like corner of the brain that is affronted by an inability to dismiss him. There can be few opponents who frustrate England as often and for as long as Graeme Smith. The gentleness does not extend as far as the pitch. He is cracking them, bit by bit.
India vs England Test Series: India Report Card
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