Graeme Smith retirement March 7, 2014

'Smith the greatest Test captain ever' - Kirsten


Gary Kirsten, the former South African batsman and coach, has called Graeme Smith the "greatest captain ever" in Test cricket. What instantly struck and stayed with Kirsten, who played his final four Test series under a 22-year-old Smith, was the young captain's credibility as a leader and a genuine feeling for the job. Self-belief, presence, leading from the front, man-management and shielding his players from critics and media were what made Smith his best captain, Kirsten pointed out.

"Is he the greatest captain ever in Test match cricket? In my view he must be," Kirsten told ESPNcricnfo. "I don't think anyone had led as long. We know that. He has taken South Africa to great heights. The kind of success he has had, the kind of success he has taken South African cricket to, I would argue that he is the best captain that has ever lived."

Smith's endurance as a Test captain was second to none. He lead South Africa in all but the first eight of his 117 Tests, the most in the history of Test cricket. The next best was Australia's Allan Border, who led in 93 matches.

According to Michael Atherton, the former England captain, there is nothing tougher mentally than opening the innings and captaining in Test cricket. Kirsten, a former opener, agreed with Atherton, saying Smith played the dual role without ever showing the stress and strains of the job.

"For Graeme to end up with an average above 48 and then to have the type of leadership success he did have is absolutely a massive achievement," Kisten said. "You look at his record in the fourth innings and his ability to make important contributions. That gave the team a lot of confidence. It gives your team a lot of comfort to know that the captain is walking the talk."

What Kirsten always liked about Smith was that he could trust the captain to stand up for his players. "Having played under him, which I really enjoyed even though he was a young captain at the time, I felt he was believable to me," Kirsten said. "He had credibility in my eyes. Because I knew he would front up to difficult situations."

When Kirsten became South Africa coach, he noticed Smith had become a complete captain. "By that stage he had learned a lot about leadership," Kirsten said. "We always had a good connection and we had an enormous amount of fun over the two-year period we were together leading the team. We were able to tweak a few things and take the performance to even greater levels. We both believed that South Africa could become the No. 1 team in the world."

Ian Chappell, the former Australia captain, differed with Kirsten's opinion. Although he called Smith a "strong leader", Chappell did not rate him high on the tactics ladder. "He was obviously the sort of character who his team-mates would follow, but tactically on the field, I think he was pretty limited and really, I think South Africa should've been looking for another captain quite a few years back, but certainly the leadership side of his captaincy was quite a strong point," Chappell told ESPNcricinfo.

Chappell said the major drawback about Smith's captaincy was that he tended to "sit back". "South Africa's style of play is designed to beat all the teams below them in standard and most of the teams that are level with them in standard, but it will never beat a team that is either absolutely level with them in ability or slightly better. They wait for teams to make mistakes. Now, really good teams don't make mistakes. You got to provoke that. (Alastair) Cook and Smith tend to sit back. They wait for the opposition to stop the run flow and wait for the mistakes. As I said, that won't beat the really good teams, that way of playing cricket."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Kobus on March 12, 2014, 11:03 GMT

    Having greatest captain and graeme smith next to each other is a huge oxymoron, You could see his lack of captaincy everytime things werent going his way, His win ratio as a captain only has him at 15 th spot with Steve waugh on top. I agree with the fact that certain captains' record does look better than others partly due to having a strong team to lead in the first place. SA was one of the top test nation from his inaugural start as captain and had the ROCK Kallis among others for all those years. To have a win ratio of less than 50% means he lost more than he won with a very decent team on his side is a huge underachievement as since they were basically no 1 test team for the last 7 years as well.

  • Android on March 11, 2014, 9:06 GMT

    @Greatest Game You're right. But before Wallaroo came all guns blazing, I too was talking about the theme related to the topic. It was my mistake, I thought he was a south african. If you consider me to be an anti South African, you're wrong. I am a follower of SA rugby for past 10 years and enjoy their rivalry with All Blacks.

  • David on March 11, 2014, 4:46 GMT

    @Shane Bond. Please, in the name of common decency, do not even suggest that Wallaroo is South African. As Wallaroo writes in his post, "Calling me a Saffa is an insult far worse than the one I inflicted on you lol."

    I strongly agree with Wallaroo. He is correct. Calling him a Saffa is an insult to each & every South African. The proud members of the Rainbow Nation have done nothing to warrant such slurs. Africa has neither wallabies nor kangaroos, & certainly no cross-bred mix of the two. We have lions & elephants & giraffe and zebras but we have NO wallaroos lurking about our fine country. Such creatures live in other, less hospitable climes.

    It would be greatly appreciated if all antipodeans could restrict their domestic disputes to conversations pertaining to Aus & NZ. If you look carefully, you can see quite clearly that this conversation is about the captaincy of Graeme Smith. The headline "Smith the greatest Test captain ever' - Kirsten" is a really BIG clue.

  • David on March 11, 2014, 4:44 GMT

    @ SLSup asks "Greatest_Game: What is the "...unique character of the game that is diminished" by comparing how players performances aggregate over the years."

    I did not write a thing about "comparing how players performances aggregate over the years" - you did. I wrote about the pointlessness of claiming a "best." As Albert E. taught us, everything is relative. Absolutism is for baseball, or American football, two curses by which I am afflicted due to my current place of residence. but make no mistake I am a Saffa and intensely proud of Smith's HUGE accomplishments. I think of him as 'one of the greatest" ….

    As you may notice from the screen name I chose, the GAME is the greatest, but about it's players it seems tawdry to bicker back and forth, claiming one or another the "best" this or "greatest" that….

    Honour accomplishment, avoid hyperbole, respect the game.

  • Android on March 10, 2014, 10:55 GMT

    @Wallaroo Ha! Who cares about census anyway? It's bound to be affected by population specially Subcontinent. And I didn't came here to inflict "insults" to anyone. Quite kiddish aren't we? I don't care how kiwis living in Australia behave or what you think of them. I have plenty of aussie friends and if someone like you misbehaves, I ain't got a problem. Who cares how you think of us and else? Enjoy.

  • Dummy on March 10, 2014, 9:11 GMT

    For me the best captain should *not* be judged on win/loss and draw ratios. He should be judged on a) his ability to get the most out of his players. b) tactics c) ability to adapt to situations. e) courage f) ability to put his team ahead of his own personal goals. g) ability to teach his team members. I am not sure that most of the captains suggested in this forum have displayed the above qualities. Only players can really identify a good captain, because we do not see what happens behind the scene.

  • Arnie on March 10, 2014, 8:01 GMT

    To suggest that Graeme Smith was the greatest Test captain of all time is patently absurd. The great captains stamped their mark on the game, they made innovations. Smith was typically South African - conservative, captaining by numbers. But he might well have been the greatest batsman of all time - an average of 48 when he could only play on one side of the wicket! Had he been able to play on both sides of the wicket - he might have ended with a Bradman-esque average.

  • usman on March 10, 2014, 4:51 GMT

    Ironically, by labeling him "the greatest captain of all-time", Kirsten's claim has resulted in a deep incision of the considerable negatives and limitations of Smith's captaincy style and defensive mindset.

  • c on March 9, 2014, 21:44 GMT

    Greatest_Game: What is the "...unique character of the game that is diminished" by comparing how players performances aggregate over the years. Yes I agree it's a bit over-the-top to say Smith is the greatest (or any other skipper for that matter). TO ME it is fair to say Smith has done NO OTHER CAPTAIN HAS EVER DONE. I am not talking about captaining 109 Tests. But assuming captaincy of a major cricketing nation at just 22 when it was beset with conflicting international and domestic crisis and handle all that in the WAY he did and leave at 33 having just led SA's most successful run in its history stretching its top-rankings further away from the competition... I can't think of any captain having done THAT.

    I'd say Kirsten only got his timing right but not his footwork and placement. No runs, no point as you said. Dot ball in a Test but Yes some passionate opinions in comments section makes it sound like it's a 20/20 (unwarranted criticism). Haha, I/Chappell. All God's children!

  • Dummy4 on March 9, 2014, 20:06 GMT

    Smith was clearly a great dominator in one on one series especially test format, amid good resources. As for himself he was confident, warm and cordial and was the best man for the hour, except that he too failed to remove the curse on the CSA when it came to knockout stages of the world cup.

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