Last week, as a limping Ryan Harris destroyed the timbers of Morne Morkel to seal a truly remarkable series victory for Australia in South Africa with just four and a half overs to go, the curtain came down on one of the most memorable careers in cricket.
Graeme Smith bade farewell to international cricket as the longest serving international captain of all time. The left handed batsman, 33, hung us his cap after 117 test matches, 109 of those in charge of the Proteas, and just three days shy of the twelfth anniversary of his debut.
His career is remarkable for many reasons, not least the fact that as a fresh faced 22 year old he was asked to become captain after just eight international test matches in 2003. However this was no ordinary captaincy, this was a country that was still trying to wrestle with its very dark recent past.
Smith would have to deal with the aftermath of apartheid, trying to balance the desire for a multicultural South African national team with the requirement for each player to be good enough to represent their country, regardless of their race. He would also have to emerge from the shadow of Hansie Cronje, the controversial South African captain who dragged his side into crisis as a result of a match-fixing scandal just three years previously.
Smith, nicknamed Biff after the Afrikaans name for a Buffalo due to his ungainly style, took the mantle and led South Africa through a decade of great success. It is testament to his longevity that he captained the man who he would later work alongside to mastermind South Africa’s rise to number one in the world, Gary Kirsten. The pair led South Africa to world number one status following a test series victory in England in 2012.
Alongside his successful partnership with head coach Kirsten were many historic achievements for Smith. His 259 as captain of South Africa at Lord’s against England in 2003 is still the highest test score by a visiting player at the home of cricket.
He also scored back to back double hundreds in that series, having scored 277 in the previous test at Edgbaston.
Smith also led South Africa to the highest run chase in one-day history, chasing Australia’s mammoth 434/4 at Johannesburg in 2006.
Smith scored 90 in 55 balls to help his side win the game with one ball remaining, finishing with a successful total of 438/9.
That aside, his failure to guide South Africa to a World Cup victory is a criticism against his captaincy, and cost him the one-day captaincy after defeat to un-fancied New Zealand in the quarter-finals of the 2011 tournament.
His record as Test captain is one to admire: 109 matches at a win percentage of 48.62% ranks him amongst the all-time greats. Only two other test captains, Sir Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd of the West Indies, have higher win percentages after captaining their country for over a decade.
Smith also had to compete with the great Australian side and then a resurgent England under Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower.
In his 117 tests he scored 9,265 runs at an average of 48.25 with 27 centuries and a highest score of 277. His stats in England are remarkable: 12 Tests with 2,051 runs at an average of 67.75, seven centuries and a highest score of 277.
He will hang up his South African cap to captain Surrey for the next two seasons, alongside another recently retired icon, Kevin Pietersen.
It is testament to Smith’s talismanic leadership that none of his 27 centuries came in defeat. When South Africa won he averaged 61.34 with eighteen centuries, when they lost he averaged 25.58 with no centuries. This demonstrates how influential he was in the South African dressing room. When he played well, the team played well.
He also displayed the remarkable trait of averaging 51.96 in the fourth innings of test matches, the hardest time to score runs. His incredible international career is displayed in his outstanding statistics; he retired after 347 matches, 17,236 runs and 37 centuries.
He also has the distinction of being the fastest South African to 1,000 test runs; the captain who secured the most Test wins (53) & the South African with the highest number of triple century opening partnerships (4).
Amazingly he also managed to dispose of three England captains on three successive tours to England, with Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss all stepping down after Smith’s Proteas had toured these shores.
Gary Kirsten called him the “greatest captain ever”, and Smith retires in the knowledge that he has taken South African cricket to a level only dreamt about when he took over eleven years ago.
His career ends in a near perfect symmetry, as he walked back to the pavilion at Cape Town after his final innings dismissal for just three runs, four days before the 12th anniversary of his test debut at Cape Town, where he was also caught out for three runs; a symmetrical end to a sensational career.
Photographs: Paul Baverey & Over the Rope