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Assessing Graeme Smith's Record Amongst Test Cricket's Greatest Captains

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 23:  South Africa captain Graeme Smith during day five of the 1st Investec Test match between England and South Africa at The Kia Oval on July 23, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
Gareth Copley/Getty Images
Tim CollinsFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 8, 2017

When South African captain Graeme Smith announced his retirement from Test Cricket on Monday, the immediate surprise to the decision lasted a curiously short time.

At just 33, there was an initially premature feel to the captain's departure. But also apparent was an understanding, an acknowledgment, that the end had been coming. 

While Smith's years are relatively tender for a Test captain, the miles and baggage on his body and mind were beginning to take their toll.

No longer were deliveries that marginally strayed towards the stumps being sent screaming through mid-wicket. No longer was anything wide being pummelled through extra-cover. More tellingly, no longer was a once-bullish on-field general marshalling his troops with supreme conviction. No, instead, the Proteas' leader was peering over his shoulder at a rampant, chasing Australian pack.

Through both injury and poor form, the notion of retirement had crept its way into Smith's mind. A high-octane, uncompromising and almost oppressive Australia simply accelerated that thought process. In short, the swagger and clarity that had defined Smith's career in charge of the Proteas had, for the lack of a better term, been "Johnsoned."

On Monday, Smith eluded to the lingering presence of such thoughts, being quoted by ESPN Cricinfo as saying:

This has been the most difficult decision I have ever had to make in my life. It's a decision that I have been considering since my ankle surgery in April last year. I have a young family to consider, 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. 

Indeed, it has been 11 years since a muscular 22-year-old was handed the reigns of his nation's Test side and charged with the responsibility of restoring South Africa's faith in the integrity of the game after Hansie Cronje.

In that time, the burly left-hander has led his side a record 109 times, steering South Africa to the capture of 53 Test victories—also a record. 

Under Smith, South Africa have upheld the notion that a cricket team is merely an extension of their captain; the aggression and self-assured strut of recent Proteas outfits reflective of the skipper's manner.

During his tenure, South Africa claimed a series victory in England for the first time in 43 years, inflicted a home defeat to Australia for the first time in 16 years and rose to become the world's dominant team in the Test arena.

But how does Smith's record compare to those of other long-serving Test captains?

 

Most matches as Test captain:

RANKPLAYERNATIONSPANMATCHESWINS
1Graeme SmithSouth Africa2003-201410953
2Allan BorderAustralia1984-19949332
3Stephen FlemingNew Zealand1997-20068028
4Ricky PontingAustralia2004-20107748
5Clive LloydWest Indies1974-19857436
6Steve WaughAustralia1999-20045741
7Arjuna RanatungaSri Lanka1989-19995612
8Michael AthertonEngland1993-20015413
9Hansie CronjeSouth Africa1994-20005327
10MS DhoniIndia2008-20145326

 

The longevity of Smith's leadership must be admired, particularly after being named as South Africa's youngest ever captain with just eight matches to his name in 2003.

However, absolute values are rather frivolous when it comes to comparisons, the relative figures instead provide a clearer insight into Smith's success at the helm of his nation.

 

Highest winning percentages as Test captain:

RANKPLAYERNATIONSPANMATCHESWIN %
1Steve WaughAustralia1999-20045771.92
2Ricky PontingAustralia2004-20107762.33
3Mike BrearleyEngland1977-19813158.06
4Bill WoodfullAustralia1930-19342556.00
5Sir Viv RichardsWest Indies1980-19915054.00
6Shaun PollockSouth Africa2000-20032653.84
7Mark TaylorAustralia1994-19995052.00
8Michael VaughanEngland2003-20085150.98
9Hansie CronjeSouth Africa1994-20005350.94
10Ian ChappellAustralia1971-19753050.00
15Graeme SmithSouth Africa2003-201410948.62

 

*Minimum qualification of 25 matches as captain

Again, however, such statistics can be misleading. For instance, Mark Taylor is widely recognised as a finer captain and on-field leader than Ricky Ponting, but in a comparative sense, the numbers suggest otherwise. 

Smith's predecessor, Shaun Pollock, also owns a deceptive winning record as captain. While Pollock orchestrated wins in 14 of his 26 matches in charge, there were no landmark triumphs during his reign. Two series victories at home to Sri Lanka were joined by wins against Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, West Indies and the travel-phobic outfits of India and Pakistan.

Enhancing Smith's record is the bruising left-hander's rapid ascension to command. Unlike countless of his successful contemporaries, the South African captain didn't inherit an elite side after spending years deputising to influential leaders. In fact, few men have ever shouldered the burden of leadership at such a precocious age. 

Furthermore, of the captains above Smith on winning percentage, only Sir Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd (13th) oversaw a decade or more at the helm; many benefiting from spells in which regeneration and player turnover was largely non-existent.  

MAX NASH/Associated Press

The South African skipper also owns, among others, the rare and impressive statistic that not one of his 27 Test hundreds resulted in a loss for his side.

Such a feat is testament to an almost unrivalled ability to play match-defining and series-clinching innings, like those witnessed in England at Lord's and Edgbaston in 2003, and again at Edgbaston in 2008, as well as in Perth against Australia later that same year.

To put into context how influential Smith's innings have been, Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar scored 14 and 11 Test centuries respectively in matches in which their team lost.

LONDON - AUGUST 11:  Graeme Smith of South Africa celebrates with the trophy after winning the series 2 - 1 during day five of the 4th npower Test Match between England and South Africa at The Brit Oval on August 11, 2008 in London, England.  (Photo by Ha
Hamish Blair/Getty Images

Unfortunately for Smith, Australia look set to hand the 33-year-old a rather painful parting gift. Yet the symmetry of the occasion may well comfort the South African captain, as it was his side after all who forced the same conclusion upon Ponting.

Yet, the pain of an impending defeat will soon depart. Able to escape the compulsion to look ahead, Smith will reflect on a record that glowingly endorses him as one of Test cricket's finest performers, a leader who carried his nation out of skepticism and to the pinnacle of the sport across a distinguished decade.

A decade which leaves him among the all-time greats.

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