“They are led,” said Michael Atherton, about South Africa, “by one of the greatest Test captains of all time.”

That’s quite some statement from the former England skipper about Graeme Smith. Atherton would have played against Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor of Australia. Hansie Cronjé too. He would have witnessed Stephen Fleming’s innovativeness and in his position as a leading commentator and writer on the game in England, Atherton would have studied other captains as well.

So it’s a comment that carries a great deal of weight and I happen to agree with him. Smith is indeed one of the great captains – certainly now. Smith admits it took him a long time to learn, perfectly understandable given he was entrusted with the job when he was just 23. He made massive errors, poor calls, cheesed off a lot of people, pleased many others and now he is captain of the world’s No 1 ranked Test team.

Captaining the South African side certainly isn’t easy – nor is any cricket side for that matter – because the position carries a lot of responsibility.

Smith has been the face of South African cricket for the best part of a decade, taking over with the spectre of Cronjé’s misdeeds still hanging over the sport. He’s carried the can for two World Cup tournament exits, been hurt by defeats in the early part of his captaincy to Australia and England and had to keep the side focused while the sport’s administration fell apart.

Monday evening, as he gave a thumbs up to the camera, then held up his right index finger and mouthed “number one”, you sensed Smith had gained the ultimate redemption.

The ICC Test mace proves supremacy in the game’s ultimate format and for leading his side to it, Smith deserves the highest praise. He is a calm, astute and – as he showed in giving Imran Tahir another over, despite the new ball being available in that frantic last hour at Lord’s – a courageous leader.

He just needed something tangible to show for his efforts, and the mace was that. There is certainly some merit to those who talk about him not having led South Africa to the World Cup – but even Ricky Ponting, who has won three World Cups as Australia’s captain, has his critics who point to the lack of an Australian Ashes triumph under his leadership in England.

There’s always something to quibble over, but there can be no doubt any more that Smith – with a record that includes series wins against every other Test-playing nation – is South Africa’s greatest ever cricket captain. – The Star