This time last year, Graeme Smith was reviled as equally as he was admired as a prominent sportsman in South Africa. Too stroppy, too arrogant, too full of himself went the one argument. The other had it that he needed to be confident to take on the world, plus he was intelligent and bloody-minded. Twelve months on, it's fair to say that the pendulum has swung violently: the square-jawed Smith, 27, is now in the realm of football star Lucas Radebe, rugby captain John Smit and golfer Ernie Els. That is, he is almost universally loved and revered in South Africa.
That's what happens when you beat Australia, South Africa's great rivals. More particularly, that's what happens when you beat Australia and show class and distinction in doing so. The South Africans under Smith recently won their first Test series on Australian soil. They later embellished the achievement by cleaning up the one-day series too for good measure. Now, the home series awaits and with it comes great expectation on the shoulders of the man now hailed as "Biff the brave" after his heroics in the final Test match in Sydney.
That's when, despite being injured, he put on a teammate's hamburger-stained kit and walked out at No 11 in a heroic bid to save the Test. He only lasted 17 balls, but it was a brave cameo that defined him. "I hope they give Graeme the freedom of Cape Town," warbled SuperSport TV commentator Jeremy Fredericks. As indeed they ought to have. Smith is rather bemused by the sea-change in attitude. "Ja, it's been good, hey," he remarked recently. "People have been fantastic. I had an unbelievable welcome at the airport and the reponse ever since has been so positive. I was really humbled to see the smiles and get the back-slapping."
Things became so hectic that he took himself off to the quiet beach islands of Mozambique for a bit of R and R while the one-day series was being won in Australia under stand-in captain Johan Botha. Nothing too strenuous, mind, not with a recent case of tennis elbow and a broken finger on the mend. The elbow was treated with two injections of his own blood into the joint; the finger was put in a splinter and given time to mend.
The time away from the din gave him time to reflect on what had been. Despite making history and earning acclaim as world cricket's foremost captain, he isn't satisfied with being merely No 1. "We must progress our cricket to the next level," he says. "Our recent success was down to three years' good planning and a lot of effort. The rewards have been good and we're moving in the right direction, but what matters now is how we manage the fortunate position we are in."
He said that the immediate challenge of hosting Australia was different to travelling Down Under. "You have to plan differently for each series. We built over a period of time. Our Test side has developed nicely; our one-day side still has some areas to work on. "There's no doubt they'll come back hard at us. It's an opportunity for them to come back straight away and to regain the mantle we took from them. If they could beat us at home, they would feel they've gained a lot back. To have the opportunity to beat them home and away is something we haven't been able to do. We've done the first part and I really believe we can do it again."
Smith attributes their recent success (which included a splendid Test series win in England last year) to good planning, the consequence of which was the emergence of key players like AB de Villiers, Morne Morkel and JP Duminy. Yet Smith himself was the rock-solid pillar around which success was forged. The first time he toured Australia, he opted for an aggressive, in-your-face approach. The Aussies laughed and turned the screws on South Africa fairly easily.
More mature in thought and deed this time, he took a different tack. He was understated and humble off the field and outstanding on it. Even when it became apparent that South Africa had the Aussies' measure, he remained modest and dignified. Moreover, Australian cricket fans and their media warmed to him, and that's not something you see every day. "I guess I did grow up," he admits. "I was really young when I got the job [of captaincy]. I'm less impetuous that I used to be. There have always been people who like me and those who don't, there is no middle line. But I've made big changes to my game in the past two years, changes to myself even, so it's very encouraging to have earned peoples' respect.
"In the team context I encourage the guys to take responsibility and to follow the core values of the team. I don't like to treat the players like schoolkids. "I might be captain, but each player must do his job: each player must bowl, each must bat on his own. The more you empower them, the more confident they are, the better they get." Unlike other captains the world over, Smith has also had transformation imperatives, the old racial bogey, to consider.
There is a subtle quota system in place which demands that a certain number of black players be selected. Cricket certainly had its teething problems in this area, but happily the worst is over and the Proteas are flourishing under Smith's sensible, sensitive approach. He's encouraged the move towards transforming the game and has actively involved himself as a leader in this area. When things get heated, it's often him, the coach, the president and chief executive thrashing out the burning issues.
"We've come through it and that's a wonderful thing. Each player in the side is now a merit selection and that will boost the next generation of emerging black players," he says. Smith enjoyed a remarkable past year. He produced a heroic innings at Edgbaston to win the series against England; he won the Indian Premier League with the Rajasthan Royals; and he scored over 1,600 runs in the calendar year.
Adding resonance to his feats is that he did so with a steady diet of jabs and pills, fighting off the injury and pain caused by too many seasons and too many knocks on the relentless international circuit. This is why he almost certainly won't play IPL this season, with Cricket SA determined to preserve their crowning jewel? "Edgbaston was massive, but the IPL was also amazing," he says. "I never knew quite what to expect, but it was well run and massively supported."
Smith was paired in a team with Shane Warne, who captained the Royals. They were expected to be the worst-performing team. Indeed, one online columnist remarked "it's ironic that the two 'fatties' of cricket, Warne and Smith, are in the same IPL team, the Roly-Poly Royals." Except, the two "fatties" had the last laugh. Warne's team won the inaugural championship in dramatic fashion and Smith averaged 52 to more than justify his generous pay cheque.
"We gelled better than the others, plus our young Indian players adapted really well. It was a good balance and Shane was a smart captain. He never put the pressure on too much." One of the unusual corollaries was that Smith's popularity cracked him an acting role in "Victory", the Bollywood cricket movie that's drawing the crowds in India. Much of the action was shot in Pretoria, where Smith had to play the role of a bowler who gets belted all over the place by the star of the movie.
"I'm not expecting any Oscar nominations," quipped Smith, whose appearances in the society pages have quietened ever since his split from local "it" girl Minki van der Westhuizen. Smith anticipates the IPL getting bigger and stronger and branching out. Already there are plans for expansion with four new franchises joining in 2010. He says the possibility of cricket exploring new frontiers, of reaching out to regions like the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, is tantalising.
"I can see it happening, but we must learn to walk before we can run," he says. "I know cricket is having a real struggle balancing Test cricket and the rest, what with the success of Twenty20 and the IPL. I believe there is room for both, but we need a balance. I've never been to the UAE, but if conditions are good and there's an appetite for the game, it should be looked at. Cricket must exploit its fresh popularity, especially as even teams like Afghanistan are on the brink of World Cup qualification."
One of South Africa's other big challenges this year will be the ICC World Twenty20, of which Smith says the key is to get the right strategy, particularly with regard to English conditions. He adds: "It's a massive year. We keep talking about how big it is. We also host England in November, but if we learned a single lesson in 2008 it's that we must have absolute focus on just one thing. "We'll meet every challenge as it comes. That was vital to our recent success: controlling our thoughts."