For a very long time Peter May’s 41 Tests as captain stood as a world record. May led England for the last time against Australia at the Oval in 1961 and for years despite the proliferation of Test cricket and settled captains that stayed as the best. India’s MAK Pataudi came the closest, leading his country in 40 Tests before retiring in 1975.
And yet it was obvious May’s record would go overboard one day and sure enough that day came about during the West Indies’ tour of Pakistan in 1980-81. Clive Lloyd always seemed to be the best candidate for setting the new record and in the fourth Test of the series at Multan he did led the West Indies in Test cricket for the 42nd time to finally put May’s mark in the shade.
Lloyd duly became the first man to lead in 50 Tests and when he finally called it a day after the 1984-85 tour of Australia he had led the West Indies in 74 of his 110 Tests. Even with the proliferation of Test cricket and settled captains it did seem a considerable achievement one that would stand for a long time. And yet less a decade later Allan Border retired after having led Australia in 93 Tests.
By now it appeared that no figure would be impossible to overtake as far as captaincy was concerned. In the new millennium even as Stephen Fleming led New Zealand in 80 Tests and Ricky Ponting captained Australia in 77 matches one waited for Border’s record to go overboard. But it remained the mark to surpass for almost 20 years.
Such thoughts of durable captains come to mind as Graeme Smith on Friday becomes the first to lead in 100 Tests. The affable Smith surpassed Border’s long standing record last year and now is all set to create history. There may be others in future who will emulate Smith but the man who gets to any historic mark first is the best remembered as Sunil Gavaskar famously remarked when he crossed the 10,000 run barrier in Tests at Ahmedabad in March 1987.
It’s been ten years since Smith was appointed captain in the wake of South Africa’s inglorious exit from the World Cup which they co-hosted. Shaun Pollock was sacked and in his place was brought in a relatively unknown 22-year-old. A tour of England is a tough proposition at all times and for someone so young it must have come as a daunting challenge.
But Smith is as mentally tough as a leader as he is technically skilled as a batsman. In both roles he came up trumps. The five-match series was squared 2-2 a result few would have envisaged on the eve of the contest. As batsman Smith did even better running up double hundreds in the first two Tests on his way to 714 runs in the series.
Leading from the front came naturally to Smith but there were other qualities too that the cricket connoisseur could admire. As Wisden noted: "When the England captain Nasser Hussain referred to him during a media conference on the eve of the first Test at Birmingham as "wotsisname" Smith at first expressed irritation and then imposed an authority so crushing that no one on the field in the first two Tests is likely to forget his name as long as they live. Smith scored 277, 85 and 259."
Smith came up with the maxim "never satisfied" making it clear that hundreds were not enough. He wanted big ones and led the way himself. So quickly then did Smith make himself out to be a leader as tough as nails. It might be his first series but he was going to be fully in command.
Indeed his influence was felt even before the squad left South Africa when on his personal recommendation, as reports would have it, Lance Klusener was omitted. Smith regarded Klusener as a divisive influence and had the confidence to go public with his views.
John Etheridge in his review of the tour observed: "Smith’s single mindedness was awe inspiring. Even as young teenager Smith had made no secret of his ambition to captain the country. This was a young man with a sense of destiny and his thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. He read books about leadership and newspaper clippings about his opposite number Hussain. Smith’s captaincy was all about pounding handclaps, meaningful stares and plenty of verbal intimidation."
Off the field too Smith won many friends by taking upon a more ambassadorial role. Players were often to be seen signing autographs half an hour after the end of play, none more frequently than the captain himself. Besides making sure that his team members played adventurous cricket Smith also succeeded in their stated aim of embracing the public and being accessible.
By the end of the tour he was known as "Garam (hot) Smith" a far cry from the opening days of the campaign when he was patronized and derided. Mike Atherton wrote that Smith’s body language contrasted sharply with the two England captains during the series, Hussain and Michael Vaughan. "Hussain resigned after the first Test while Vaughan at first looked lost in his new role. Though six years older than Smith he seemed like the tyro while his opponent throughout gave the impression of confidence, optimism and certainty."
Over the years Smith has not let captaincy affect his batting as his tally of 8624 runs after 107 Tests at an average of virtually 50 with 26 hundreds (including four double hundreds) will testify. The greater focus on his batting has almost camouflaged the fact that with 152 catches he is one of the surest slip fielders of all time.
When first given the job Smith said "I have been dreaming of this moment all my life." Ten years later he is still at the helm having taken South Africa to the No 1 spot in the ICC rankings. He has left the limited overs captaincy to others but is still in control in Tests where his record of 47 wins and 26 losses alone would make him one of the best South African captains ever and one of the great leaders in the modern game.