February 1, 2013

When the going gets tough...

Graeme Smith's ability to maintain his own batting standards while leading the Test team for a decade has been one of his big achievements as captain

Leading an international cricket team is usually a job that comes with a sell-by date: beyond a certain period, both team and captain become stale, and the leadership role also usually affects the individual performance of the captain. Graeme Smith and South Africa, though, have been largely immune to this affliction, with the result that the team is looking stronger than ever as Smith approaches the 100-Test mark and a decade as leader (98 of those Tests as captain were for South Africa, and one for the ICC World XI).

When Smith first took over as South Africa's Test captain in April 2003 as a 22-year-old, he would scarcely have believed that ten years later he would still be going strong as the leader in that format. However, that's exactly how things have panned out, as Smith - along with others in the South African team management - has put together one of their most consistent Test runs, which has eventually led to the top rank. In their last ten overseas series, all of them under Smith, South Africa have won eight and drawn two. Since the beginning of 2007, South Africa have an overseas record of 15 wins and four defeats, a win-loss ratio much better than those of other teams.

Since the time Smith assumed leadership, he has played, and captained, in 98 out of South Africa's 102 Tests. In the Tests in which he has captained, South Africa won 47 and lost 25; when he wasn't around, they lost three out of four, including a hammering by an innings and 153 runs at the SSC in Colombo in 2006, in the Test in which Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene put together that mammoth 624-run partnership. Ashwell Prince was the captain in that 2-0 series defeat, which is also South Africa's last overseas series loss.

Through this long period as captain, Smith has also ensured that his batting has remained at a high level (though there have been a few blips along the way). In overseas Tests since 2007 (and excluding games played in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe), Smith is one of only five batsmen to have scored more than 2000 runs at a 50-plus average.

The table below breaks up his 99 Tests into three batches of 33 each, and his batting average has stayed at more than 45 in each of the three batches (though ithas slipped from the high of 52.92 in the first set of matches). He averaged more than 55 in the eight Tests when he wasn't captain, but those numbers are also propped up by an innings of 200 against Bangladesh in a home series in 2002.

Graeme Smith's Test batting stats
  Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s Team W/L
First 33 Tests 59 2911 52.92 9/ 10 13/ 9*
Next 33 Tests 59 2721 47.73 7/ 12 20/ 9
Last 33 Tests 57 2386 45.88 8/ 12 14/ 8
All Tests as captain 175 8018 48.89 24/ 34 47/ 26
Not captain 12 606 55.09 2/ 2 7/ 1
Career 187 8624 49.28 26/ 36 54/ 27
* Includes the Super Test in 2005, when he led the ICC World XI, which lost to Australia.

Smith's tally of 8018 runs as captain is easily the highest among all players, which isn't that surprising given that he has led in more Tests than anyone else, and he also opens the batting, which gives him a greater opportunity to bat in both innings. His aggregate of 8018 is 1395 runs more than Allan Border's, who is in second place. Only six other batsmen have even managed half the number of runs that Smith has as captain, and, not surprisingly, all of them have done it at pretty good averages. Among the batsmen in the list below, Clive Lloyd and Brian Lara are the two for whom the extra responsibility of captaincy enhanced their batting performances, while for the others it didn't make that much difference.

Captains who have scored 4000+ runs in Tests
Player Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s Career ave
Graeme Smith 99 8018 48.89 24/ 34 49.28
Allan Border 93 6623 50.94 15/ 36 50.56
Ricky Ponting 77 6542 51.51 19/ 35 51.85
Clive Lloyd 74 5233 51.30 14/ 27 46.67
Stephen Fleming 80 5156 40.59 8/ 31 40.06
Brian Lara 47 4685 57.83 14/ 19 52.88
Greg Chappell 48 4209 55.38 13/ 19 53.86

However, the one aspect in which Smith has clearly led from the front is in fourth-innings run-chases. In 33 fourth innings, Smith has scored four centuries, topped 50 on 13 occasions, and has an average of almost 58. No other batsman has scored 1000 runs or four centuries - Ricky Ponting comes second on both counts, with 931 runs and three hundreds.

Smith's fourth-innings proficiency surfaced early in his captaincy stint: in only his third such effort, against New Zealand in Wellington in 2004, he scored an unbeaten 125 and led South Africa to a tricky target of 234 after they had slumped to 36 for 3. Smith's knock was the only century of the match.

Four years later, he came up with two absolute gems. At Edgbaston, chasing a target of 283, Smith struck a magnificent unbeaten 154 to lead South Africa to victory by five wickets after they lost four wickets for only 93. It was the highest score of the match, and the only 50-plus score of the chase: the second-highest score in the fourth innings was Mark Boucher's unbeaten 45. A few months later, Smith's 108 against Australia in Perth led South Africa to a successful chase of 414, the second-highest total in fourth-innings wins. And in 2011 in Cape Town, Smith was at it again: in a bizarre, low-scoring Test in which Australia were bundled out for 47 in their second innings, Smith's unbeaten 101 was a fine support act to Hashim Amla's 112 not out as South Africa sailed to the target of 236 with ease. In fourth innings of Tests in which he has captained, Smith has scored 22.67% of South Africa's total bat runs, having batted in only 13% of their total innings (32 out of 246). That, arguably, best illustrates his ability to lead from the front in tough situations.

Captains with the most fourth-innings runs in Tests
Player Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Graeme Smith 33 1449 57.96 4/ 9
Ricky Ponting 21 931 71.61 3/ 4
Michael Atherton 19 776 48.50 2/ 4
Brian Lara 19 750 46.87 2/ 3
Michael Vaughan 21 563 33.11 1/ 1
Stephen Fleming 22 512 26.94 0/ 4

In terms of results, perhaps his greatest achievement has been the consistent results he has achieved in overseas Tests: he is only one win short of Lloyd's record of 23 victories abroad (including Tests in neutral venues). Overall too, he is one short of Ponting's mark of 48 Test wins as captain. Smith also holds the record, with Lloyd, for most Test wins in Asia for a captain from outside the subcontinent, but four of his seven wins have been in Bangladesh. Smith is also in second place in terms of Test wins at home, though his win-loss ratio isn't close to those of Ponting, Waugh, or most of the other top captains. Given South Africa's strong recent stats, though, all these records will probably stand in Smith's name by the time he is done with Test captaincy.

Captains who have won ten or more away Tests
Captain Tests Won/ lost Ratio
Clive Lloyd 50 23/ 10 2.30
Graeme Smith 54 22/ 13 1.69
Ricky Ponting 38 19/ 11 1.72
Steve Waugh 28 19/ 7 2.71
Allan Border 42 13/ 11 1.18
Viv Richards 26 12/ 6 2.00
Sourav Ganguly 28 11/ 10 1.10
Stephen Fleming 42 10/ 16 0.62

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter