Adam Wakefield

Graeme Smith, one of SA’s best…ever

Occurrences happen in threes, and with the retirement of Andrew Strauss on Wednesday from all cricket, South African Test skipper Graeme Smith claimed his third England captain trophy to mount on his imaginary wall. Three England tours as skipper have shown Smith to have the skills of an assassin as Strauss’ departure from the cricket world completed Smith’s triumphant.

Regarding Strauss, it was a thoughtful decision to depart the Three Lions since as a captain and player Strauss had earned the respect of his colleagues and opponents, and by deciding to walk away now, showed exactly why he is so highly respected across the cricket world.

For Smith, the 2-0 victory over England is one of his finest if not his finest performance as Test skipper, with only the 2-1 series victory in Australia in 2008 comparable. It seems, since it is so difficult for the journalists to truly know what is happening within the dressing room, that the arrival of Gary Kirsten has breathed new life into Smith’s captaincy. At the Oval, where most expected him to bat into the third session on the fourth day, he declared and threw down the gauntlet to England. He has persisted with Imran Tahir more than a younger Smith would have, and his batting remains the heart of South Africa’s batting line-up, with the great Jacques Kallis, his heir-apparent Hashim Amla, and AB de Villiers (who should be left to be a batsman and not a wicketkeeper after SA tour Australia later this year) forming the limbs of probably South Africa’s strongest post-re-admission line-up.

No batsman has scored more centuries in wins in the fourth innings of a Test and no batsman has scored more runs as a Test captain. Kallis is the only South African to have scored more Test runs than Smith and have more centuries. He is the only South African to have scored four Test double centuries.

There has always been a segment within South Africa’s cricket fandom that have never liked Smith. Yes, his record at World Cups continued the trend of the Proteas flattering to deceive at knock-out tournaments, which is a problem that goes beyond Smith. His results as an ODI skipper are merely a symptom of that problem, not the cause. Also, his decision to release the T20 and ODI captaincies has shown that even for his broad shoulders, there are limits. Surely now, like those who realised that Kallis is greatest cricketer to have played for South Africa until only recently, he has earned the respect and admiration he deserves.

Now a father, Smith appears to again have the hunger that made him such a formidable opponent when he came onto the international cricket scene. Kirsten and co have also helped alter the Proteas mindset, as they have rightly earned the right to become recognised as the best Test side in the world. We always had the skill, now we have mental pieces to complete the ever complicated South African jigsaw.

If Smith can again conquer Australia, it will seal his place in the Pantheon of South African cricket greats as both a batsman and a leader. That is, if he hasn’t arguably done that already.