On 1 February, Graeme Smith is likely to become the first cricketer to captain in 100 Test matches when South Africa play Pakistan in Johannesburg. Considering that he is still under 32 and in no hurry or danger of having to relinquish his Test leadership, Smith is likely to build on that statistic to something that will be tough to overtake.
“It is a phenomenal achievement and not many can do this,” says Rahul Dravid, who led India in 25 Tests between 2003-07 (including against South Africa), over the phone.
Having played only eight Tests and 22 One Day Internationals (ODIs), Smith took over the captaincy from Shaun Pollock after the 2003 World Cup and became the youngest-ever South African captain at 22 against Bangladesh in April. “It is important to look back at the situation when Smith became captain,” says commentator and columnist Harsha Bhogle on email. “(Hansie) Cronje was a strong character and the person who replaced him, Pollock, was one of the nice guys of the game. They needed a powerful personality to take them beyond that phase and into a new era.”
The decision to appoint Smith was widely criticized in South Africa, with the exception of former cricketer and then administrator of the South African Cricket Board Ali Bacher, who said, “This is a guy who you know will climb Everest for South Africa.”
“Smith had a reputation of being ambitious but also his own man,” says Bhogle. “For a 22-year-old with a handful of games behind him to lead a major team with real stars must have been a huge challenge. The only similar case I can recall is Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi leading India after playing only two Tests.”
Smith’s start to captaincy was less than flattering, though he scored double centuries in his 11th and 12th Tests (third and fourth as captain) in England in 2003 (277 at Edgbaston and 259 at Lord’s) that helped draw the five-match Test series against England. His first 21 Tests as skipper had eight wins (against weak teams like Bangladesh, New Zealand and West Indies), six draws and seven losses.
“Probably we’d have been running 60 shuttles up and down stairs back in the day,” Smith recalled the training routines of those days after the last Test match (11-14 January) against New Zealand at Port Elizabeth. “I’d like to think things are a lot more settled now and we have a better understanding of how to be successful. There’s a really good maturity in the group, just understanding what needs to be done at this level and how to get the best out of people. That’s the key difference. Back then we were always hard-working. Discipline was the major word around South African cricket. Now we’re allowing people to grow,” he was quoted by The New Zealand Herald.
Captaincy at the international level is a demanding job. There is no better example than Mahendra Singh Dhoni, whose forest of jet black has been snowed under in just 43 Tests as captain. While it can be debated that leading an Indian team is much tougher, it still does not take the credit away from Smith. Asked whether an Indian can have such a long stint, Bhogle says: “It is not impossible but given the media pressure, definitely tough. It also depends on what age you start and how much Test cricket you play.”
Dilip Vengsarkar, who captained India in 10 Tests, says: “One reason for his longevity is that Smith started young as a captain. Secondly, he has been successful and success depends on how good is your bowling attack, to be able to take 20 wickets in a match.”
Lance Klusener’s statement—“nobody died” and “at least I’ll have two extra weeks for fishing”—didn’t go down well with the new skipper. Klusener, who was at the time one of the world’s most dynamic ODI players, played his last international match for South Africa in August 2004.
In around 10 years, Smith has led his side to 47 Test victories, with a win percentage of 47.47. Among all Test captains, Steve Waugh remains the best, with a 71.92 win percentage in 57 Tests.
Smith’s first major achievement came when he led South Africa to a series win (Tests 2-1, ODIs 4-1) in Australia in 2008-09. South Africa became the No. 1 Test side in December after defeating Australia in a three-match series (1-0) in their own den.
“He has played a big part in South Africa’s No. 1 Test position today but it also required good team effort,” says Dravid. “Huge,” says Bhogle of Smith’s influence on the team. “If South Africa have made major strides in world cricket, he deserves a fair bit of the credit.”
His batting style was similar to the way he led—straightforward, lacking in drama, and direct. Smith has 8,624 Test runs at an average of 49.28—he is the second-highest South African run-scorer of all time after Jacques Kallis.
In ODIs though, South Africa have had mixed success, with the big World Cup prize eluding them on a few occasions. They have lost three times (1992, 1999 and 2007) in a World Cup semi-final. Their 434-run chase in the fifth ODI against Australia in 2006 after the series was poised at 2-2 remains a record chase. He has led the side in 150 ODIs, with a 64.23 win percentage.
But success comes at a price—Smith has never been popular for his on-and off-field behaviour. In his initial days, Dravid says, he was aggressive and in your face—over the years he has matured as a captain.
For example, in his bookGraeme Smith: A Captain’s Diary, he doesn’t mince words on Norman Arendse, president, Cricket South Africa: “At various times, he wanted to be captain, coach, CEO, president and convener of selectors, which became very frustrating.” Smith also wrote: “It is an enormous credit to the team (that) we managed to be successful throughout Arendse’s presidency, because this wasn’t the only curve ball he threw in our direction.”
Smith can also be occasionally witty. Before South Africa’s tour of Pakistan in 2007-08, when asked by reporters if the absence of Shoaib Akhtar would be an advantage, he replied, “For us or for Pakistan?”