Graeme Smith retires March 5, 2014

'When I told the team, it was a really tough night'

After 10 years, 11 months and 16 days, 117 Tests, 60 wins, 9265 runs, 27 hundreds and more press conferences, training sessions and autographs than you can count, Graeme Smith had one word to describe his international career: privileged.

"When I look at my Test cap, it's worn down and it's been through a lot but it's been a privilege," Smith said after his last day as a Test cricketer. "Today is a day I would like to celebrate. The challenges of captaining are well documented but I only see it as a highlight. I've been extremely proud of captaining South Africa."

Smith is Test cricket's longest-serving captain and under his leadership, South Africa grew from a team that threatened to achieve into one that achieved. They won series in tough places, members of their squad became world leaders in their disciplines and they became a unified unit.

Smith began thinking about retirement in June, when Gary Kirsten's tenure as coach ended. Smith wasn't sure if it was just Kirsten going, Mark Boucher gone and Jacques Kallis about to go that sparked the idea, or whether he really wanted to call it quits. "It's been a period of time of trying to understand that because everyone kept telling me you're only 33," he said.

If any cricketer has proved that age is really nothing but a number, that person is Smith. He took over the captaincy at 22 and played at the highest level for 11 years. Smith had said he did not want to play until the same age as Jacques Kallis (38) or Sachin Tendulkar (40) and perhaps that is how old he feels already. Once he accepted that, it was just about doing what he considered the right thing.

"The hard part is to have the courage to make the decision," Smith said. "It felt like the time is right. I realised this is the place where I wanted to finish. I didn't want to hang on too long and finish it in a place where it didn't feel right. It just took courage to hang on to that last 5% and make the decision.

"I haven't had my best series. I felt really good in the two past series but knowing that the end was near made it difficult for me to find the space to keep performing."

Before the second innings against Australia at Newlands, Smith needed to call time. His first duty was to tell his charges. It was also his most difficult task. No player in that change-room knew a Test captain other than Smith. His concern was that they would feel abandoned. "When I told the team, it was a really tough night. I didn't get too many words out," he said. "The hardest part was saying goodbye to the team. For so long the Proteas have been my family. I've grown close to players and I will cherish those relationships for the rest of my life."

Knitting close bonds is what Smith's leadership was really about. As his captaincy matured, his focus shifted away from results and towards team building, which he realised would ultimately bring results. "To create the culture and to see it grow has been really special," Smith said. "And there's been so many wonderful victories around the world. Our record away from home is something I am proud of as a leader as well."

Smith also places value on things that cannot be measured. As his captaincy reached its later stages, he spent time emphasising team culture and the importance of representing the country the best way possible. He stressed that political challenges had nothing to do with his decision to step down. "I am hugely proud of the diversity and the quality of players that have come through and stand their ground against anyone in the world. The diversity of this team is our strength," he said.

He thinks it will continue to be that way but South Africa's most important challenge will be filling the gap left by the retirements of three stalwarts: Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis and himself. "There's some important things that need to be tightened and an environment needs to be created that can create success. The leadership group and how they galvanise the players and get them in the right direction will be important," Smith said. "Yes, the team has lost a lot of experience but there are guys who have played well around the world."

He will be around to offer advice when needed. "There are certain challenges on the exterior that need to be met. I'd love to play a role in helping. I have gained a lot of experience over the years and I'd love to share that."

For now, though, he has something he needs to do: let go. While South Africa's lower-order batted out the final hours of Smith's international career and attempted to increase his unbeaten series run to 15, the former national captain found out how difficult it bowing out really was. "We've become good at never letting go," Smith said.

Smith's days as a South African cricketer are over but he left the way he arrived -fighting. "We found a way to take it as deep as possible. It would have been a wonderful fairytale if we hung in there but I saw enough qualities to know South Africa will be strong for a long period of time."

In that knowledge, Smith can walk away a satisfied and proud man. He is choosing to walk away feeling privileged instead.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent