“I definitely don’t see myself playing to the age of (Jacques) Kallis or (Sachin) Tendulkar (not that I’m in the same bracket as them). I think hopefully I’ll know when the time is right. I’m 33 now, and still have a lot more to do in the game. But I’ve got another one (Newlands Test) coming up in front of me.”
This was Graeme Smith’s response to my question last Friday of how many Newlands Tests he could still play before he retired.
Smith certainly did not tell the full truth but neither did he lie. It is a skill he has refined while at the helm of the national cricket team.
Eleven years ago, at only 22 years of age, Smith might have been lulled into a different answer. He certainly was not the media-savvy professional he is now. The naivety of youth certainly rubbed up some people wrongly at the time, notably a judgemental South African public who could not quite take a liking to their new brash young cricket leader.
Smith never apologised for the person he was. Only on the one occasion did he feel the need to seek the nation’s forgiveness.
It was after the Proteas’ 2011 World Cup exit, when Smith failed to return home with the rest of the team.
The fact that he went to Ireland to propose to his now-wife Morgan Deane was lost on the South African public.
Perhaps that was the first sign of things to come.
Smith, the square-jawed, barrel-chested, hard-nosed opening batsman who stared down even the meanest of fast bowlers, was beginning to mellow. His priorities were also starting to change – he had already handed over the limited-overs captaincy armbands – and serving South African cricket was no longer his be-all and end-all.
In truth, it could all have ended right there and then, but for the appointment of his former teammate Gary Kirsten as Proteas head coach.
Kirsten persuaded Smith to stay on as leader of the Test team, promising to rekindle Smith’s love for the game through innovative coaching methods that were built on creating a Proteas culture that emphasised the importance of family and close friends and quality time away from the game. Wives, children and girlfriends were prominent members of the tour party during the Kirsten era, and this environment re-energised Smith and set in motion the duo’s plans for taking South Africa to the summit of Test cricket.
This they duly achieved together. And Smith could not have been a more proud individual. All those years of fighting with administrators, selectors and politicians, and copping criticism from the media was now all worth it.
Smith had taken South Africa from the depths of a World Cup crisis in 2003, the match-fixing saga of Hansie Cronje two years previously, and gone on to achieve the near unthinkable: winning successive Test series away in England and Australia to be crowned the Test kings of the world.
Those memories would all certainly have come flowing back as he walked off a Test field for the last time yesterday. It was not a fairy tale finish – like Jacques Kallis experienced just some months ago in Durban – and neither was there one last match-saving innings for the Newlands faithful.
But that did not detract from the significance of the occasion.
It may have been a brief 16-minute stay at the Newlands crease, the same crease at which he launched his Test career 11 ago against the same opposition.
The difference now was that Smith was not verbally abused and was instead being lauded by his fiercest rivals – a guard of honour from the Australian players as he walked out to bat. They then applauded him all the way back to the dressing room one final time.
Newlands has been Smith’s home since his teenage days when he made the Great Trek from Joburg. He could not forget to thank them for all their support, and duly did one last time when he turned around, held that big lump of wood aloft one last time in appreciation, and walked up those steps with everyone standing to salute a great warrior of world cricket.
After 11 years of being at the coalface of South African cricket, the time had come for Graeme Craig Smith to say goodbye to the Proteas.
He will be missed.