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