As Graeme Smith becomes the most capped captain in Test history, we look back at his five greatest moments at the helm of South Africa
It’s a sign of Smith’s importance to South Africa, and his ability to judge the big moments, that many of his finest achievements have coincided with the Proteas’ best victories over the past eight years.
It also says something that all five of these moments have come in matches overseas…
1. First Test As Captain - vs England at Edgbaston in 2003
If ever there was a sign that we would be sitting here, eight years later, debating Graeme Smith’s finest moments in a record-breaking captaincy career, then this was surely it. In his first Test as captain, Smith won the toss, elected to bat and went about making a tit of Nasser Hussain’s “what’s his name?” comments with a massive 277 that very nearly beat the record for an individual score by a South African. His mark had been firmly stamped on South African cricket, and the only regret was that the Proteas would win neither the match nor the series.
2. Series Win In Pakistan in 2007
South Africa had not won on the subcontinent against anyone except Bangladesh for over seven years, and they travelled to Pakistan after another limited overs disappointment - this time in the inaugural World Twenty20. They arrived in Karachi to find searing temperatures and a pitch tailor-made for spin, but refused to be daunted as Paul Harris took five wickets in the first innings and Dale Steyn claimed five in the second to announce his arrival as the world’s best fast bowler in the making. Smith then scored 133 in the second innings of the second and final Test to make the series safe and spoil Inzamam-ul-Haq’s final Test match. Although Jacques Kallis was the deserved man of the series, it was the team spirit created by its leaders which was equally responsible for their success. At a time when other teams were reluctant to tour Pakistan, South Africa did so uncomplainingly and they would reap the rewards of their new-found touring spirit the next year.
3. A Century For The Ages - vs England at Edgbaston in 2008
There are many ways in which a captain can be measured. Some of them are intangible to the human eye, such as Mike Brearley’s infamous man-management skills, but there is nothing subtle or intangible about Smith’s ability to score runs in the fourth innings to win matches. This has to be the best of the lot though, not just because he scored 154 not out but because of the context. Andrew Flintof’s dismissal of Jacques Kallis thanks to a dodgy sightscreen had injected both drama and emotion into a key run chase, and Monty Panesar was getting good turn and bounce. Somehow Smith took the emotion out of it all, and methodically went about seeing South Africa to their first series victory on English soil since readmission.
4. That Broken Hand - vs Australia in Sydney in 2009
Smith’s legend had already been made in Australia, but it doubled in size when he emerged from the pavilion to be greeted by an upstanding crowd at the SCG on 7 January 2009. His 108 in Perth had set the Proteas on their way to their first series win Down Under since readmission, which was sealed in Melbourne a week later. Yet Smith’s decision to bat with a broken hand became the stand-out moment of the series - a portrayal of his square-jawed bravery in the face of adversity. It proved a fruitless exercise, as he failed to accompany Makhaya Ntini to stumps on the final day to deny Australia a victory, but the ‘consolation’ was certainly removed from the Australian win because the focus had been brutally torn away from the home side.
5. 100 In His 100th Test - vs England at The Oval in 2012
There have been many criticisms levelled at Smith over the years, both rightly and wrongly, but no-one can deny that he has a clear sense of occasion. It could reasonably be asked why he has gone missing when the carrot of glory has not dangled in front of his nose, as it so obviously has in fourth-innings run chases, and as it so obviously did at The Oval last month, but perhaps that misses the point of the man. Either way, even his most vehement critics must have struggled to deny him the joy of scoring 130 in a crushing innings victory over England in his 100th Test, which came just days before he became a father for the first time.