I remember watching him debut against the Aussies in 02 – coming into a team that had been given a wallop in the previous Tests. From the outside he seemed nerveless, aggressive, giving as good as he got. He looked more like an Aussie cricketer than a Saffa, which, I suppose in 2002, was the ultimate compliment.
I remember the first double ton – lowly Bangladesh in East London of all things. A commentator said – when he gets in, he goes big. How true that became.
Only two years older than me, I was always fascinated by how someone my age looked some grown up, so adult. Outwardly composed and so damn sure of himself, he gave me countless lessons on how to stand up and be yourself, back yourself and just go out there and do it.
His first tour as captain – to the home of cricket. The country I had just spent a year in, and suffered mightily at the hands of Aussie and English mates following a diabolical year for SA cricket and rugby. I watched the toss, with Nasser throwing out that ill advised verbal jibe at the new captain on the first morning at the toss. He responded in the best way he knew. On the field. With his bat. Grim, determined, he churned out runs in that first innings. 277 of them. The more the Poms saw his ”technical deficiency” and attacked it, the more runs he made. First innings, and a marker had been laid. Biff was the Man to lead from the front, and compete with the very best of them. And as captain, he started becoming the team, from that very first day. Another double ton at Lord’s in the next Test, and he started threatening records set by Don. As in Bradman, the very best there was. A legend had been born. As a student, my time was my own, and I watched every single day of that five test series. And revelled in it. Nasser quit, and we were impressed even more by his iron will. Little did we know that it would become Biff’s English tour circus trick.
I watched his first test ton on SA soil as captain live at the Bullring late that year versus the Windies. He got off the mark with a trademark whip through midwicket from a ball delivered by Bravo that was pitched on off stump. Laid a marker out in the first over, and we just knew he was going to make a big one. Fitting for the occasion. Incidentally, I received my first year final exam results that same day, via SMS will sitting in the stands watching Biff live. Pass, just going to show that all that time watching Biff was well spent.
I watched plenty of his innings since then, huge opening stands with Gibbs, a memorable one with Mackers to save a Test at Lords, big runs on the subcontinent, that 100 in Perth against the Aussies in 2008, the truly stupendous, breathtaking, undefeated ton to win the series against the Poms in Birmingham (#2 Vaughan), another 4th innings 100 against Australia in CT, his part in the famous 438 game, a blitzkrieg T20 assault when the game was in its infancy at the Wanderers, a 100 on the losing side against the English at Centurion, when Strauss spitefully refused him a runner, another ton at the Oval in his 100th test to set up another series win and take care of #3, Strauss in 2012. Critics and purists bemoaned his technique, his lack of style, but I loved it. Effective and brutal it could be, yet I know I’ve seen him cover drive the world’s best for boundaries the world over. Beside, he got the runs, he got the big runs when we needed them and I for one could not care if he scored 100% of them between square leg and mid on on the leg side.
Through all this, he was the Test captain, and opening bat. Coaches, opposition, conditions, politicians, personal strife – you could rely on Smith. And if you needed a games saved or won against insurmountable odds, let him know. He seemed to thrive on it, and has a record in successful 4th innings chases that is head and shoulders above the very best in the world EVER.
Yet somehow, SA fans in particular did not warm to him. I’ve lost count of the number of die hard SA cricket fans who I’ve argued with for hours over Biff, who genuinely seem to despise him. Personally. As if they know him. Despite the incredible things he has done on and off the field as a batsmen and captain. Opposition teams and supporters always seem to hold him in higher regard than his own, and that will always puzzle and frustrate me.
GC Smith, walking out to bat at #11 with his hand in freshly set plaster to face Johnson and Co on an uneven Sydney pitch with the series already in the bag. Spine tingling, heart warming. It won over some of the most crusty Aussies fans I’ve ever met, and summed up Biff and how he viewed his team far better for me, than anything that could ever be written or said.
Fair, honest, yet competitive to the end, humble in both victory and defeat, Biff finished with more than 100 Test as captain, an average as an opening bat of more than 48, an extraordinary unbeaten home and away Test record as captain, and the respect and admiration from almost the entire cricketing world. Including me. I’m not sure how to tackle SA test cricket without him at the helm. But he’s taught me a thing or three over the past 12 years, and I’ll battle through. I’ll miss him, more than should be healthy considering I’ve never met the man, never said a word to him apart from sending him congratulatory Tweets occasionally.