Man of steel

Tags: Knowledge

As he walks into the sunset, Graeme Smith will always remain South Africa’s greatest captain

At 22, he was captain of South Africa’s Test team. At 33, he was gone. In between, lies the fascinating tale of Graeme Craig Smith of Johannesburg.

South Africa were still recovering from the earthquake of the match-fixing scandal that claimed their first leader of stature, Hansie Cronje, and his replacement Shaun Pollock paid for a lacklustre World Cup campaign where the hosts — despite being tipped as pre-tournament favourites — were eliminated early.

Handed the reins of the team with just eight Tests under his belt, Smith quickly grew into the job. Said former India coach and then opening batsman for the Proteas, Gary Kirsten, who played a handful of matches under the new skipper before calling it a day, “Is he the greatest captain ever in Test match cricket? In my view, he must be.”

Kirsten said he didn’t think anyone had led as long, and as well. “He has taken South Africa to great heights. The kind of success he has had, the kind of success he has taken SA cricket to, I would argue that he is the best captain that has ever lived,” the man who was to later join hands with Smith in the team’s management was quoted as telling a website.

In itself, Smith’s record as a batsman was impressive — 9,265 runs from his 117 Tests at an average of 48.25. He hit 27 centuries in his career and, interestingly, South Africa never lost a Test match where he had scored a hundred runs or more in an innings.

Steering the team through the post-match fixing crisis and the confidence slump that followed their exit in the 2003 World Cup, Smith grew into the job. He may have departed on a losing note, finally surrendering a series at home to his greatest enemy, Australia, but he also took his team to a rare series victory Down Under (2008), handing the Aussies their first home series defeat in close to 16 years. He also had successful tours of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Another interesting feature of his career is the fact that as many as three England Test captains lost their jobs following series defeats at the hands of the Proteas. Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss all paid the price of losing to the Smith’s South Africans.

Yet, almost in parallel, Smith was unable able to break South Africa’s jinx in limited overs cricket and despite the team being counted as among the strongest units in the world, was never able to lead them to a major trophy or title. That, however, does nothing to blemish his stewardship for a side that was to eventually rule the Test rankings.

Said Haroon Lorgat, Cricket South Africas’ chief executive: “Although Graeme’s decision to retire from all forms of international cricket comes as a surprise to all of us, we must respect him for deciding to call time. Knowing him as well as I do, having been instrumental as a selector in appointing him as a young captain, he would not have taken this decision lightly or without a great deal of thought.

“He has captained the Proteas for more than a decade and he will draw a lot more satisfaction from the fact that he leaves our Test team at the top of the world and in such good health rather than from all the personal records he has achieved as the longest-serving captain the game has ever seen in the demanding Test format. I would like us to remember Graeme for his nerves of steel and his match-winning performances that were synonymous with some of the most remarkable fourth innings victory chases of all time.”

For the record, Graeme Smith is the only cricketer to have led his country in more than a hundred Test matches (109 in all), ahead of Allan Border of Australian who finished with an impressive 93 games as skipper himself.

“This has been the most difficult decision I have ever had to make in my life,” Smith said, announcing his retirement five days ago. “It’s a decision that I have been considering since my ankle surgery in April last year... and I felt that retiring at Newlands would be the best way to end it because I have called this place home since I was 18 years-old. I have always been someone who has left everything out there on the field for my team and for my country. I’m extremely honoured and proud to have had the privilege to lead so many wonderful players and to have been a part of building the Proteas culture to what it is today. It is a culture that every player can be, and is, immensely proud of.

“I have been fortunate to have had many highs, amongst them leading and being part of the best Test team in the world. I will cherish these memories for the rest of my life. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I bid my career a fond yet sad farewell.”

In his testament, Lorgat added: “He can leave the game with pride... He has been a mighty warrior, a leader of men and an exceptional part of our international cricket.”

For a captain who led from the front and backed his players all the way, there can be few finer words said in farewell.

(Rahul Banerji is

the sports editor of

The Asian Age and

Deccan Chronicle)

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