Johannesburg – On the eve of Graeme Smith’s 100th Test as captain, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula lavished him with praise describing him as an inspiration to all South Africans.
“Graeme Smith’s exceptional display of talent, sense of duty and patriotism places him in a league of his own,” Mbalula said in Johannesburg on Thursday.
“He is an individual who gave it his all and who inspired even me to become better.”
Smith, who turns 32 on Friday, will become the first person to captain a team in 100 Tests, when he leads South Africa onto the field against Pakistan in Johannesburg.
Mbalula said Smith had overcome many low moments in his career but never gave up and for that, he needed to be admired.
“He has come of age to be what he is today and has displayed what we call ‘the spirit of no surrender’,” he said.
“He understood that courage comes with the challenges and criticism of a sportsman.”
Smith would look back and remember the people who told him he was too young to be captain and that he would never make it but he overcame all his critics and matured into the man he was today, Mbalula said.
“Success does not come easy, or on a silver platter, and you have to work for it,” Mbalula said.
“Today we celebrate Graeme Smith because nothing was given to him. He fought for it and he worked very hard to be where he is today.”
To the chuckles of the media and the skipper himself, Mbalula said Smith represented what he called “a paragon of human perfection”.
The only other Test captain to have come close to Smith’s record of 100 Tests at the helm was Allan Border, who captained Australia in 93 Tests at a stretch – a record that still stands and was highly unlikely to be broken anytime soon.
Australia’s Steve Waugh, who led his side 57 times, holds the record for winning 16 Tests in a row between 1999 and 2001.
Smith’s remarkable achievements included amassing 8 624 runs – at an average of 49.28 – in his 107 Test matches.
As an opening batsman, against the new ball, he has scored 26 centuries and 36 half-centuries but he would be equally remembered for his leadership qualities both on and off the field.
Smith took over the reins at the age of 22 and since then, had played an important role in South Africa's remarkable success in the longer version of the game, taking them to the top position in the ICC Test rankings.
In his second series in charge, Smith scored two double-centuries in England, at Edgbaston and at Lords, but his greatest triumphs came more recently when he won consecutive away series in both England and Australia in 2012.
The one trophy to elude Smith is the Cricket World Cup and although he said he was no longer the one-day captain, he would still love to play in another world cup and really perform well.
“The resilience to still be here after a long period of time is probably my greatest achievement,” Smith said on Thursday.
“The pressures you face as a captain – the responsibilities on and off the field – and the ability to handle it for so long is something of which I’m very proud.
“From a team perspective, winning back-to-back in England and Australia last year will go down as my greatest leadership achievement throughout my career.”
Smith said he only really grasped the true meaning of being the captain towards the end of 2007 and people had shown a lot of patience with him while he grew into the role.
“It was only at the back of 2007 and early 2008 that I really felt in control of the leadership and the direction of the team and understood what it entailed to be the Proteas’ captain,” he said.
“The early years were spent learning and developing so I’ve only been captaining for five or six years in a proper way.”
Smith said Jimmy Cook had played a huge role in his career as a batsman and also paid tribute to his old school, King Edward School (KES) in Johannesburg, where he learnt his cricket and had both discipline and tradition instilled in him.
He said in his early years as captain, his relationship with Stephen Fleming, former New Zealand skipper, had been important to him as he also got the job at a young age and Australia’s Ricky Ponting was the most competitive player he ever came up against.
However, when it came to tactics, he said England’s Michael Vaughan was the smartest captain he had played against. Not only did he have a good, tactical brain but he had media savvy and always went about things in a professional manner.
“The outpouring of emotion and love from the fans over the last few days has been incredible so I’ve been walking around in a constant buzz,” Smith said.
“Now, it’s crucial I get some space on my own and concentrate on my own performance in the Test tomorrow. The team is in a good space so that’s always encouraging.” – Sapa