CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 04: Graeme Smith (C) walking in to bat for the last time during day 4 of the 3rd Test match between South Africa and Australia at Sahara Park Newlands on March 04, 2014 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Manus van Dyk/Gallo Images)

Australian captain Michael Clarke paid the ultimate tribute to outgoing South African Test captain Graeme Smith, proclaiming “he was a once-in-a-lifetime player”.

Clarke played out one last epic battle with his great rival Smith at Newlands yesterday, with Australia claiming a thrilling victory with just 4.3 overs remaining in the final Test. The victory earned the visitors a 2-1 series triumph over the World’s No1 Test side.

But, while Clarke was grinning like a Cheshire cat after his team’s achievement, he did not lose cognisance of the fact that world cricket was bidding farewell to one of its all-time great leaders.

“He (Smith) is going to get a lot of credit, but I don’t think it will be enough. He is a fantastic leader, one of the greats of the game. He could easily have played for a lot longer. I have the utmost respect for him as a player and captain. I have learnt a lot from playing against him. I can guarantee that South African cricket will miss Graeme Smith.

“The way South Africa fought today was a tribute to Graeme Smith. He was a once-in-a-lifetime player. He was much like Ricky Ponting was to Australian cricket,” Clarke said.

An emotional Smith was preceded into his final press conference as captain of South Africa last night by his wife, Morgan Deane, two children, parents and his brother. It was clear that they have become an increasingly large part of his life, and despite being only 33, he was “at peace with his decision” to start the next journey of his life.

“It has been on my mind for a while. The hard part is the courage to make it. But I felt the time was right here. I wanted to go out where it all started. The Proteas environment has been like my family and I will cherish those relationships.

“But it has been on my mind since Gary (Kirsten) left as coach. It was then that the thought entered my mind. At 33, people are telling me I still have lots to offer, but I am at peace with my decision.”

Clarke can heed lessons from Smith in terms of keeping his personal emotions intact in the heat of battle. The Australian captain had an animated on-field “discussion” with Dale Steyn during the closing stages of South Africa’s fourth innings yesterday, although Clarke at least admitted his behaviour was not in line with being the captain of an international cricket team.

“We’re two extremely passionate teams. And there were a lot of words (exchanged) through the game. It was also against a guy I have a lot of respect for. If anybody was out of line, it was me, on either team it was me,” he said.

Smith’s stature in the world game has also not gone unrecognised, with former South African Test wicketkeeper and current ICC chief executive David Richardson also paying tribute to the 117-Test veteran.

“On behalf of the ICC, we congratulate Graeme Smith on his retirement following a very impressive and successful international career,” said Richardson. “He will no doubt go down in cricket history as one of its most respected captains and opening batsmen

“Batting at the top of the order is not an easy job but his determination to succeed is reflected in his career statistics and record of success, particularly in leading South Africa to the top of the Test rankings. The way he matured as a captain, encouraged his side to play hard but fair, and was humble in both victory and defeat, is a great example to all.” - The Star