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Cutting to the Chase

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Graeme Smith’s large, stocky frame may not suggest great running abilities, but boy, is he good at chasing or what.

The realization that Smith’s place is in the higher echelons of modern greats is growing steadily (if only too slowly) in the collective consciousness of the cricketing world. But the flagship to Smith’s claims to greatness is his tremendous performances when it comes to chasing down totals.

The souls of some big, gun-totting colonial hunters who must have ravaged the African savannah in an earlier time seems to stir in Smith when he comes across big game. Denied of an opportunity to hunt animals in this protected era, the ethereal hunter seems to have decided to vent his energies on chasing down incredible totals instead, using Graeme as the vehicle to do so.

Calm, objective statistics may be a more refined way to explain Smith’s eminence as a run-chaser than corny metaphors. Smith’s Test average when batting in the fourth innings is 55, a figure that is impressive even as a general average (for reference, the corresponding figures for Richards, Lara, Dravid and Hobbs are 47, 35, 44 and 57 respectively), but one that looms in impact and significance when you see that it comes on the treacherous badlands of fifth-day wickets and high-pressure totals that lay down a draw-or-defeat condition on the batsmen.

Smith’s batting average in the second and fourth innings in matches South Africa have won is 65. And his average in successful fourth innings chases is 83. The only thing about Smith that made me dizzier than these facts was the first glimpse of his ex-girlfriend ex-Miss South Africa Minki Van Something-Attractive.

This average of 83 comes from a significant sample size of 16 matches. Adorning these 16 matches are three crown jewels, three hundreds orchestrating successful chases of 234 (against NZ), 264 (against England, a masterful knock of 154 not out in an innings where the second highest score was 45) and the epic chase of 414 (against Australia), with Smith top scoring in each of these efforts.

Claims that these three innings beef up the average is misplaced – he has a further 5 half centuries in the remaining 13 innings. But even if they did beef up the average, it would only be appropriate – these were three of the most remarkable innings of this decade whose impact when evaluating Smith deserves to spill beyond just that particular match.

Interestingly enough, when batting fourth, Smith averages a 50+ score every alternate innings. If you include figures from the second innings as well, 86% of Smith's 50+ knocks have come in winning causes.

Assembling records of other pretenders to the throne of the best chasers of all time is a whole new exercise altogether, but such a study will only serve to zero in on his precise standing; it is unlikely that it will push him off the long list.

He is, in fact, possibly the most valuable cricketer South Africa has ever had. Given that victory-effecting knocks under pressure in the fourth innings is one of the soundest proofs of the overall quality of a cricketer.

The South African captain’s run-chasing pedigree takes a little beating in the ODI format, especially when seen in the light of his imperious Test records. His average when batting second is 47, better than his first innings average of 41, but by itself, not something to make you quake in your boots. However, he still weighs in heavily under the counts of ‘context’ and ‘impact’ of his performances. 

77% of his 50+ knocks when chasing in ODIs has resulted in a South African victory. To provide a background to this figure, Michael Bevan, one of the most storied ODI finishers, has a corresponding stat of 68%. The only modern cricketer who holds a spot in the same league is M.S.Dhoni, who has also taken India to wins on 77% of the times he has scored 50 runs or more. The fact that both are captains provides some delectable food for thought - does the mantle of a leader drive these players to take responsibility and personally steer the ship when the waters are choppiest?

In recent times, Smith has had a run of injury-induced patchiness and moderate form. But even so, each time Strauss weighs up the pitch, dew and other variables when deciding whether to bat or field in the forthcoming ODI and Test series against South Africa, he may do well to also give some thought to the Smith factor.

(Click here to know more about Jatin Thakkar)


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