Graeme Smith was an aggressive, callow youth of 22 when he was appointed captain of the national team.
At the time there was a long line of sceptics – many of them in KwaZulu-Natal – eager to write him off as he stepped into the breach after the sacking of the much-loved Shaun Pollock.
Pollock had been forced to pay the price for a calamitous World Cup in 2003, and the auguries were not looking good when Smith took over the reins of a horse that was well short of a gallop.
Smith didn’t waste any time proving his critics wrong. In that first, magical year, he struck two consecutive double centuries against England – the first, 277, a national record after England captain Nasser Hussain had haughtily described him as “Whatsisname” in the lead-up to the series.
Hussain duly quit as captain after the conclusion of the first Test, the first of three England captains – the others were Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss – who Smith saw off during his career.
In the early days of his remarkable 11-year reign as Proteas captain, Smith wore a suit of armour with plenty of spikes sticking out.
“I was so driven and single-minded,” he told me later. “I wanted to show people that I could handle the job. I wanted to bat and bowl for everyone and project a tough and aggressive exterior. I realise now that when you do that you lose sight of many of the important facets of what it really means to be a professional sportsman.
“But, as time’s gone on, I’ve allowed people to see who I am and I’ve also allowed myself to open up and get to know people better.”
Those raw early days created an uncompromising image of Smith, which is perhaps why he is still less affectionately regarded than his predecessor, despite the massive respect in which he is held.
Cricket writers who have watched his subsequent career at close quarters have long since become impressed by his growing maturity as a leader, on and off the field.
Smith made a partial breakthrough in the public’s affections when he walked out to bat with a broken finger at Sydney in the 2008/9 New Year’s Test. His immense courage in facing a rampant Mitchell Johnson in such circumstances typified his granite-jawed captaincy style in which he always sought to inspire by example.
“I think Sydney was a big moment for me. It made me feel that sportsmen have a bigger impact on people than just the five wickets they take or the 100 runs they score. That moment, and how people took inspiration from it, really opened my eyes.”
In the wake of his retirement from international cricket, there will be plenty of statistics showing that he was South Africa’s greatest and most successful leader.
He did, after all, captain the team who won a Test series in England for the first time since readmission, not to mention the even more impressive feat of winning a series in Australia for the first time.
Having done that with coach Mickey Arthur, he repeated the feat in 2012, this time with Gary Kirsten – in the process taking his country to No 1 in the world, a position they still hold regardless of the result of the current series against Australia.
His personal record as a leader is unchallenged in world cricket.
He has played in the most Tests as captain (109), scored the most runs (8 659) and scored the most centuries (25).
For his fellow players, his style of leadership and the impact it made on the team culture will long be remembered. For me, however, naturally deprived of that experience, it will always be his ability to play the big innings at a time of maximum pressure.
That ability was best exemplified on August 2, 2008, when he struck an unbeaten 154 on a crumbling pitch at Edgbaston to clinch the third Test and a series victory against an England team supremely confident of victory. It remains, in my view, Smith’s greatest innings and his most significant. – Mercury