Smith cited the considerations of a young family and the wear and tear of 12 years of international cricket that forced ankle surgery last April for his decision to retire. The timing of his announcement – after the third day of the series-deciding third Test and with his team’s backs to the wall, has set off the conspiracy theorists.
But whatever the reasons for Smith’s retirement, the South African public owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. The Proteas faced an uncertain future when he took over in 2003, but Smith forged the unity, determination and appreciation for the different cultures present in the team that took them to the number one position in Test cricket. And he did all that while juggling the off-field demands of politicians, selfish administrators and a fickle public.
The statistics only tell some of the story of Smith’s immense contribution: A world record 109 Tests as captain, the most Test runs by a captain and the only batsman to score four fourth-innings centuries in wins.
His batting alone was formidable: 9265 runs at an average of 48.25 with 27 centuries; the highlights being the only South African to score four double-centuries and equalling Don Bradman’s record for the batsman with the most triple century partnerships.
But the growth of the team was mirrored by the development of Smith as a person. Handed the reins of a team in distress when he was just 22, he understandably used his natural confidence to try and stamp his mark.
The learning curve was steep, but Smith was a fast learner. The team were soon fully behind their captain, impressed by his courage in leading from the front, and the hints of arrogance that might have been present at the start of his tenure were soon replaced by a welcome thoughtfulness and honesty, especially in his dealings with the media.
The legacy and values that Smith has left in the form of world-class stars like AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn will hopefully guide the new era that the Proteas now enter.