Jean Smyth: Graeme Smith deserved better

Graeme Smith's final press conference was a dignified, emotional affair and seemed the perfect way to say farewell. No fanfare other than a short tribute at the start from Haroon Lorgat, Cricket South Africa's CEO, and a moving message from team manager and good friend, Doctor Mohammad Moosajee.

After that Smith spoke with conviction and in his usual fashion, he didn't duck, bob or weave from any of the questions posed.

At best, a slight sway when asked about difficulties of captaining his country. He flat-batted those superbly, simply describing what an honour it had been.

He also didn't take aim at his critics (which I don't think anyone would have begrudged him). Class prevailed.

There was also the bit at the end where journalist Colin Bryden thanked Smith for the way he'd treated them over the years, for his "integrity" and "honesty" in their dealings with him. With that Graeme Smith, the Protea, departed. Genuine, happy, relieved?

It didn't matter if he simply just chose to stop, if he was pushed, or if his body couldn't hold up to it anymore. In the moment those sorts of questions are completely irrelevant. This was his moment to say goodbye, on his own terms.

Column inches have swelled praising the player he was, the leader he started out as, the leader he became, and the deficiencies in both his game and cricketing persona. So we should leave that to one side and rather reflect, I believe, on ourselves.

What is it that South African sports fans want from our 'heroes'? What levels of paranoia drive us to the levels where it seems that the only palpable moment of real pleasure for fans comes in the sole act of winning?

If they do win, that gives the players 10 minutes reprieve or so before the bitter, sharp-tongued naysayers re-emerge. If they lose badly, we may as well march them to the nearest square for a public flogging.

Smith is the classic example of someone who has routinely had to fight not just his team's corner but his own. Yes, it was his job to do so, and with his very public growing up not only as a player in the national set-up, but as captain, it's this value that South Africans need to reflect on.

For just a minute, put all your prejudices about Smith aside and let the enormity of what he did in his career sink in.

In that clear stream of reasonable thought you'll find it hard to contend that not only will Smith go down as a great of South African sport but one of cricket's greats.

The statistics speak for themselves so I won't bore you. Simply, to average 48.25 as a Test opener is astounding.

For the sake of this exercise we look beyond Smith but to other examples of post-1994 South Africa: Jacques Kallis was routinely maligned for his style of play; Mark Boucher was criticised for his role in the apparent 'clique' in the Proteas team; under-appreciation of Joost van der Westhuizen as one of the best rugby players this country has ever produced is common; Lucas Radebe's name is still being sung at Elland Road; Ernie Els's support base is among the most fickle out there; and so the list goes on and on.

So, what is it about South Africans right now that doesn't let us stop, reflect and appreciate? Do we suffer from an inferiority complex with our place in the sporting world? Why the constant stream of jokes about the South African-born players in the England cricket team? It's old, boring and tells us more about ourselves than it does about them.

In my opinion, the average fan in this country routinely fools themselves. The onus lies with them to apply their minds critically and engage on an informed level with those teams they claim to support. Fine, shriek for Graeme Smith to be dropped but, at the very least, ask who do replace him with? What value from the team do you lose with him out as captain? What does that do to the team dynamic? And so on. You owe it to yourself to engage your own brain.

If current public sentiment picked the Proteas side, it would have Kagiso Rabada opening the bowling, the batting and keeping wicket while performing physio duties. Dale Steyn would be his batting partner and Quinton de Kock would be running the drinks on and off.

It seems that during the Newlands Test, before Smith's announcement of his retirement, Minister of Sport Fikile Mbalula made the most sense on reflecting on the hammering the Proteas took in the first Test at Centurion. After being asked why he didn't criticise them like he recently did Bafana Bafana, he said they'd deserved the right to stumble on occasion in performance. They had, after all, fought their way to the world's number one team, representing South Africa with distinction.

Whenever I've traveled abroad it's struck me just how revered South African sports people are, both the men and the women. It's time for us to get over whatever hang-ups we have and applaud their achievements too.

Perhaps the best way to highlight my point came from Australian captain Michael Clarke himself, gracious in victory in Cape Town and reminding South Africa just what we've lost in Smith.

"I guarantee South African cricket will miss Graeme Smith. I think he's a once-in-a-lifetime player. I think his leadership is phenomenal. Any player who leads from the front as an opening batsman and has statistics like Graeme, you can't replace that."

Graeme Smith deserved better from the South African public at large. He won't just go down as one of the greatest cricketers to play for this country, but as an all-time great of the game.

Jean Smyth is EWN's Cape Town Sports Editor. Follow him on Twitter.