Choose Biff to bat for your life

Graeme Smith was just 22 when given the captaincy, and while his batting has seen several troughs to accompany the peaks, he has mastered the art of grinding out the runs when the team most needs them. All four of his fourth-innings centuries (he averages 55.7 then) have resulted in memorable South African wins.

Updated: February 10, 2013 19:04 IST
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Bangalore: It's hard to say where the phrase 'bat for your life' originated, but like many cricket clichés, it skirts the thin line between mirth and nonsense. Seriously, how stupid would you have to be to leave your fate in the hands of someone tackling a projectile hurled at speed with just a piece of willow that can't be more than 38 inches long and 4.25 inches wide?

Once you lose the hyperbole though, the sentiment behind the expression is clear. Just who would you trust to bail you out in a crisis? Who can keep a calm head when those around him are flustered? Whose composure gives less confident teammates the belief to hang around?

In the three decades that I've watched the sport, there have been quite a few who seemed to save their best for the most arduous situations. The mistake we often make is to try and analyse purely on the basis of numbers, figures that often reveal nothing of the match situation.

Before he made an unbeaten century in Chennai in 2008, as India chased down 387 to beat England, much was made of how underwhelming Sachin Tendulkar's fourth-innings catalogue was. Many of the unflattering comparisons referred to Brian Lara, largely on the basis of one glorious innings, the unbeaten 153 that took West Indies to victory over Australia at Bridgetown in 1999.

Yet, that was one of only two fourth-innings hundreds that Lara would score. The other, 122 against Australia in Trinidad four years later, didn't mean as much as the team lost by 118 runs. Over the course of his career, Lara's average in the final innings of a Test was 35.12. Tendulkar's, despite the recent fallow run, is nearly three runs higher (37.85). He also has three fourth-innings hundreds, with the first (a match-saving 119 at Old Trafford in 1990) and second (136 in the heartbreaking defeat to Pakistan in 1999) as memorable as the Chennai century against England.

If you view ability in crisis through such a narrow prism - fourth-innings performance - then Steve Waugh was not a great batsman. He averaged only 25.54 in the fourth innings, and made as many as 30 of his 32 centuries in the first half of a game. Yet, if you ask anyone with cursory knowledge of the game to make a list of the gutsiest innings played in the modern era, Waugh's 200 at Sabina Park - the game that saw Australia knock West Indies off the perch they had occupied for two decades - is a shoo-in for the top 10.

If fourth-innings numbers alone are considered, then Younis Khan (59.7) trumps Javed Miandad (54.4). But how many Pakistani supporters would pick the affable Younis above the ultimate street-fighter in an all-time XI?

In this age of pitches that barely deteriorate, the emphasis on fourth-innings scores is even sillier. Consider two of the greatest rearguard actions that Indian cricket has seen. At Kolkata in 2001, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman added 376 in the third innings of the match, after India had followed on 274 behind. In Adelaide in 2003, they added 303 after India had slipped to 85 for 4 in response to a massive Australian total. Try telling those that watched that the pressure was not comparable to a fourth-innings chase.

Having said that, there are some individuals who have a penchant for applying the finishing touches. Few in recent times have done it as well as the man who will lead South Africa for the 99th time in the first Test against Pakistan that starts on February 1 at the Wanderers, and who will lead in a Test match for the 100th time, including once as World XI captain against Australia in the 'Super Test' in 2005.

Graeme Smith was just 22 when given the captaincy, and while his batting has seen several troughs to accompany the peaks, he has mastered the art of grinding out the runs when the team most needs them. All four of his fourth-innings centuries (he averages 55.7 then) have resulted in memorable South African wins.

When it comes to insurance, there's nothing quite like the Smith hundred. Even Sir Donald Bradman didn't have a perfect record - Australia lost two of the matches in which he reached three figures. After more than a decade in the game, Smith's hundred-copybook is without blemish - 17 wins and nine draws.

The hundreds aside, what's most admirable about him is the resilience he has shown when he finds himself in a corner. On India's tour of South Africa in 2006-07, he started the one-day series with scores of 1, 0 and 0, before finishing with 79 at Centurion. In the Tests, Zaheer Khan tormented him again, with the first three innings at the Wanderers and Kingsmead fetching him only 20 runs. In a series where only Ashwell Prince scored a hundred, Smith finished with scores of 58, 94 and 55. It's not exaggeration to say that South Africa wouldn't have won the series without the captain walking from darkness into the light.

I remember watching him practise in the build-up to the final Test at Newlands. For nearly half an hour, he tackled throw-downs with just one hand - the right - on the bat handle. Concerned that he hadn't been playing straight enough, he was leaving nothing to chance.

As he struggled to eke out a run during the first half of that series, a couple of fans unfurled a banner in Durban that said: "We hope you scored more with Minki" – a reference to the woman he was dating at the time. There were similarly cruel barbs at press conferences as well, but at series end, there was no I-told-you-so or chest-thumping from Smith, who shook hands and walked away with the air of a man secure that he had done his part.

There have been dozens of left-handers who batted more gracefully, and several other captains who have led their sides with more imagination. But when it comes to getting the job done, it's hard to think of anyone who can match Smith's resume. Two series wins in England and Australia don't brook any argument. Biff Day, as Cricket South Africa have chosen to label Friday, is a fitting tribute to the modern game's toughest warrior.

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