Australia in South Africa 2013-14 March 3, 2014

The end had been coming for Smith

A picture on Instagram, Irish citizenship, a young family and a long time at the helm. There was plenty pointing towards Graeme Smith preparing to call time on his career. It has been an immense one.

In the next 48 hours, Graeme Smith will represent South Africa for the last time. Three days short of 12 years as an international cricketer - and on the ground where his career started in 2002 - South Africa's most successful, longest-serving shepherd will leave his flock to tend to themselves.

The news has come suddenly and surprisingly, but not entirely shockingly. Anyone who spent teenagehood and beyond doing something they cherished will want to grow up at some point. Smith has come of age through cricket and through captaincy. He has now come out the other side.

Smith led South Africa through their most successful period in Test history. They have been on an unbeaten run away from home for almost eight years and have not lost at home in five years. He has been in charge of the top batsman, top bowler and leading all-rounder, all at the same time. He has taken them to No.1 in the world and kept there for 19 months. He has been their talisman and their frontman, a frontman in every way including the literal, opening the batting in difficult conditions and averaging almost 50 as he approaches the end.

Many people will not understand why the end should come now but the truth is that it has been coming for some time. Almost a month before the day Smith announced his decision to walk away, he gave his first hint that he would do so. He posted a picture on Instagram of his wife and and two young children with the caption. "Always miss these guys when away!..... last one I promise." Now we know what that meant.

That was a firm sign and one that was discussed on these pages at the time but the indications had been building for a while. Two weeks before that, Smith traveled to Ireland to collect the certificate confirming his citizenship to that country. When it was reported, he assured fans he was not turning his back on South Africa. He tweeted: "I love my country and remain always a loyal South African. Half my family is Irish now and visiting them is easier with dual nationality."

Before that, in December 2013, a story sprouted that Smith had threatened to resign the captaincy over selection issues. He killed that suggestion too. In November 2012, Smith signed a three-year deal with Surrey which he could not fulfill in its first because of an ankle injury. He had to cut short his stay in London, where he had relocated with his young family, and expressed disappointment.

Smith's family is ultimately the reason he has reached this point and we would have known that as early as after the 2011 World Cup. That was his last assignment as ODI captain and he earned the wrath of the public when he did not return home from the tournament with the rest of the team but instead went to Ireland to propose to Morgan Deane. An over-sensitive public loathed her then but soon grew to love her as the woman who turned their captain into a softer, nicer and more laid-back person.

With marriage and fatherhood, the other side of Smith emerged. Far from the bubblegum-chewing hard-arse that stared opponents down on the field, Smith allowed his gentle, loving side to come to the fore. The nation grew to adore him in his new role, even when he did not score the runs they wanted.

But cricket is a results-driven game and eventually the lack of positive numbers will catch up. Smith has gone eight innings without a half-century, which is not that many especially considering that less than six months ago he scored a double-hundred against Pakistan in challenging conditions against a challenging attack in the UAE. Still, what Mitchell Johnson has done to him in this series has exposed old weaknesses and it seems Smith has had enough of scar tissue being exposed.

Not for the first time in his career, Smith will exit in ungainly fashion. South Africa are two days away from the end of the series against Australia, a series which they will have to fight hard to draw. Should they manage that, they would extend their unbeaten run to 15 series. If they do not, it will be the first time since March 2009 that they have been defeated.

Either way, it is the end of an era. An era that began and ended in August 2012 when Mark Boucher retired and South Africa became the No.1 ranked Test team. An era that looked more like ending when Jacques Kallis retired after the Boxing Day Test last year. But an era that can be rightly be called the Smith era. It belonged to him and now it's over.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on March 4, 2014, 23:11 GMT

    I think it was a very hard decision for Graham to make, one of the big factors for his retirement at this point is his family. He still has young children who really need to see more of their Dad and spend quality time with their father. He could have decided to continue for another year or two, but believe he decided to put his family first, a very wise decision.

  • Dummy4 on March 4, 2014, 20:56 GMT

    More than anyone else the person concerned knows the right time to move on. Clearly in Smiths mind the time is now. Good luck to him in his future life.

  • Dummy4 on March 4, 2014, 20:02 GMT

    12 years as captain together with added pressures and responsibilities off the field (press conferences, selection meetings etc) Graeme you have done a nation proud. Not only that but as a player your stats show what a fine cricketer you have been too! Best wishes for the next chapter of your life.

  • shauna on March 4, 2014, 19:28 GMT

    Every cricket fan will miss you Biff. One of the most respected leaders of the game who led by example. The decision to quit, although premature in many eye, is well thought out. AB has clearly shown he can be the next leader, atleast in the shorter format. Good luck with your future Biff. Hope to see your class in county games :)

  • Subba on March 4, 2014, 19:26 GMT

    A tremendous captain and leader of men. He left at the right time and unlike a Ponting, did not continue through lost series after series , and wait to be kicked out. he had character and grace, which Aussies, other than Border and Taylor can never have. have a nice life Graeme. You were the master.

  • Rajdeep on March 4, 2014, 18:22 GMT

    Nice to see how many people came out to say goodbye to him. Oh wait.

  • S on March 4, 2014, 17:26 GMT

    Ugh - that's 3 people in 2 series that Johnson has forced into retirement -- Trott, Swann and now Smith.

  • Dummy4 on March 4, 2014, 17:00 GMT

    Smith and Kallis we cricketers we all loved for their grace and dedication and professionalism. They showed that you can be a great cricketer and a great gentleman at the same time unlike our dear friends Australians when they were at the top...We will miss Smith and Jack...two of the best ambassadors of the game. Smith deserve to give team to his family. He was thrust upon huge responsibility as a younger by Ali Bacher so I am sure he has paid the price for that.

  • dyke on March 4, 2014, 16:16 GMT

    We always knew that the day will come but it came sooner than expected,it was love and hate relationship between smith and us the supporters bt to tell the truth eveyone will miss him he contributed positively to the s.a team.#farewell graem "biff" smith.

  • Samrat on March 4, 2014, 15:55 GMT

    Goodbye Biff, you took the SA team from the perennial No.2 next to Aus (under Hansie) to No.1. You made the team more than the sum of its parts. Your courage and conviction were there on every occasion. Sad to see you go, wish you all the best for whatever life has in store for you.

  • No featured comments at the moment.