Graeme Smith is often rated as the best captain that international cricket has ever seen, and rightfully so. South Africa were always among the top teams in world cricket but under Graeme Smith, they established themselves as a force to reckon with. He was pushed into the limelight at the young age of 22 and went on to captain the Proteas for 11 years.
During his time as the Proteas’ skipper, he established himself as the best. With his 53 Test wins, he is the most successful Test captain while also being the only skipper to register 50 Test wins when he crossed Ricky Ponting's 48 Test victories. He is also the only player to captain a team in 100 Tests.
Currently the director of Cricket South Africa, Smith was considered one of the best fourth-innings batsmen of his time. On this note, let’s have a look at the top five Test knocks by this Proteas legend:
259 vs England - Lord's (August 2003)
Graeme Smith had a strong record against England; out of his 27 Test centuries, most were against England and West Indies. After scoring a record-breaking 277 at Edgbaston in England during his first tour of the country as skipper in 2003, he backed it up with one of South Africa’s biggest victories against England, all at the ripe age of 22.
At the legendary Lord’s stadium in London, Graeme Smith’s 259 was recorded in 370 balls at a rate of 70.00. Chasing England’s meagre first innings score of 173, Graeme Smith set up a strong partnership with Gary Kirsten, who was playing his last Test. The Proteas declared the score at 682/6, while a strong bowling performance by Makhaya Ntini ensured that the South Africans won the game by an innings and 92 runs.
154* vs England - Birmingham (July 2008)
Graeme Smith has scored a total of 1611 in 41 fourth innings at a rate of 51.96, including four centuries. One of those centuries came against England. Already leading the series 2-0 going into the third Test, Smith opened the batting for the Proteas but saw his side slump to 93/4 while chasing England’s 281 for the win.
He set up a small yet important 73-run partnership with AB de Villiers, and after the loss of the latter’s wicket, he teamed up with wicketkeeper Mark Boucher, who scored 45 himself to lead his side to a five-wicket victory over their rivals in Birmingham. The win, coupled with a captain’s innings from Graeme Smith, was even more significant as South Africa had won their first series in England after 43 years.
108 vs Australia - Perth (December 2008)
Australia and South Africa always put on a show for their fans whenever they faced off against each other in any format of the game. South Africa’s tour of Australia in 2008 was no different, with the skipper playing a key role through the series as South Africa meted out the first home defeat for their opponents in 16 years.
Known for his prowess in the fourth innings of a Test match, Smith scored 108 runs in 147 balls while chasing Austalia’s target of 414, scoring at a rate of 73.46. His tally set up the run chase comfortably for AB de Villiers and Herschelle Gibbs, who scored 106 and 50 runs respectively to help their side take a one-match lead in the series.
Although South Africa had wrapped up an ecstatic Test series win against Australia in the second Test, the third Test is more memorable for cricket fans. With the score reading 257/9, Graeme Smith stepped onto the pitch with a broken hand in a bid to play the remaining 8.2 overs and help his side secure a draw, if not a win.
However, it was not to be, with Mitchell Johnson scalping the legend with 1.4 overs left. Although Australia won the match by 103 runs, Graeme Smith’s undying spirit was commended worldwide.
148 vs. West Indies - Port of Spain (April 2005)
Along with his many personal records and accolades, Graeme Smith has the special distinction of not losing a single Test match when he scored a century. Of his 27 Test centuries, seven were scored against the West Indies, with five of them coming in winning causes. He scored the first of these centuries on a tour of West Indies.
Another legend of the game, Brian Lara, led his team to a first innings score of 347 while his Windies teammates struggled to go past 40 runs. In response, Graeme Smith played on at a snail’s pace, scoring 148 runs in 313 balls at a strike rate of 47.28. This was while the South African batsmen crumbled around him.
Thanks to a brilliant show by Makhaya Ntini in the second innings, South Africa went on to win the game by eight wickets.
234 vs Pakistan - UAE (October 2013)
Facing Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, this particular series is dear to many cricket fans as it marked the last of Graeme Smith’s great innings as a batsman.
South Africa were looking for revenge after losing the first Test in the two-match series. Smith led his side from the front after the Pakistan batting order was dismantled for just 99. He scored 234 runs in 388 balls at a strike rate of 60.30. While the others around him collapsed, he set up a formidable partnership with AB de Villiers, leading South Africa to a more than respectable score of 517.
South Africa went on to win the game by an innings and 92 runs, with Smith proving his doubters wrong till his retirement in 2014 against Australia.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Philip Brown