When the first Test against Pakistan starts at the Wanderers on Friday, Smith will head out for the toss for the 100th time, the first captain in the history of the game to reach the milestone. He will turn 32 on the same day and Smith is universally respected as a leader and batsman, even more so outside of South Africa.
While the focus will rightly be on how Smith has led South Africa to the pinnacle of Test cricket, it is worth remembering how it all started.
In March 2003, then selection convenor Omar Henry announced that the 22-year-old Smith, who had played just eight Tests, would be the successor to Shaun Pollock following the dismal showing at the World Cup South Africa hosted.
It was a daring gamble, but the physically imposing Smith had already shown the strength of character that marked him out as a leader of men. Nearly 10 years later, he is still at the helm of a ship that has survived some stormy seas to become the undisputed champion of Test cricket, as dominant away from home as they are in South Africa.
After leading South Africa in 149 ODIs, Smith handed over the reins to his anointed successor, AB de Villiers, 18 months ago.
De Villiers, one of the finest batsmen of the modern era, a team man to the core and blessed with a certain charm, has little previous captaincy experience, however, and whether he is the right man to be Smith’s long-term successor is now in doubt.
De Villiers, selection convenor Andrew Hudson and coach Gary Kirsten all believed AB could do the job, but there is no harm in admitting that was a mistake and moving on to allow him to concentrate on being a key, match-winning batsman for South Africa and keeping wicket in the limited-overs games.
Choosing leaders can be hit-and-miss – Mark Boucher, Nicky Boje and Jacques Kallis have all tried their hand at it when Smith has been injured – and this is also proven by the case of Hashim Amla.
A leader all through his school days at Durban High School, Amla captained the Dolphins when he was just 21 and national recognition followed suit in 2011 when he was named vice-captain of the Proteas.
But yesterday Amla confirmed that he was seriously considering relinquishing that post, because he was not willing to be captain of the team when the selectors turned to him in the wake of the suspension of De Villiers for a slow over-rate offence.
“I’m considering stepping down from the vice-captaincy, there’s no point in being vice-captain if I’m not willing to be captain. I turned down the captaincy when AB wasn’t there because I wanted to concentrate on my batting,” Amla admitted in Sandton on Tuesday.
There is a maze of on-field and off-field responsibilities a captain has to negotiate and the local boo-brigade that consistently snipe away at Smith will hopefully realise just what a phenomenal skipper he has been when they consider he has carried that burden for 10 years, while the likes of Amla and De Villiers, both quality men, are struggling with it after just 18 months.
The ODI series against New Zealand saw De Villiers go on record as saying he found it tough to concentrate on all the decisions he had to make in the field (as his over-rate disaster showed) as well as keep wicket and focus on his key batting role.
Faf du Plessis stood in when De Villiers was suspended after the first game and perhaps that is the route the selectors should now go down on a permanent basis when the Proteas are in green. It wouldn’t even be as much of a gamble as Smith’s appointment was.
Du Plessis was AB’s captain at Afrikaans Hoër Seunskool (Affies) and was impressive in leading the SA A side last year, and was cool and calm in the field against New Zealand last week.
With Du Plessis taking over the captaincy, De Villiers could play as the limited-overs wicketkeeper/batsman because that move was a success, the 28-year-old averaging 77 since taking over the gloves, while South Africa have won 32 of the 42 ODIs they’ve played with him behind the stumps.
The Test captaincy is another matter and Smith can hopefully soldier on until 2015 – the year of the next World Cup, when he may well hang up the boots. De Villiers is also then likely to have to fill the number four batting slot vacated by the retirement of Jacques Kallis, so the task of keeping wicket as well will surely be too much for someone who will be 30 and does not have the most stable of backs.
And if De Villiers is not ready then for the skipper’s armband, Du Plessis will have had two years of experience in the limited-overs game.
There has also been plenty of gnashing of teeth over what will happen to the South African team when the awful day of Kallis’s retirement finally dawns, and De Villiers doing the wicketkeeping job permanently has been mentioned as one of the cures to losing such an incredible all-rounder.
But De Villiers should rather have the responsibility, because he has the ability, to replacing the thousands of runs Kallis scores.
The Australians dominated world cricket in the 1990s and 2000s without a genuine all-rounder and the Proteas should look to specialists to do the same. Six specialist batsmen (Dean Elgar, Alviro Petersen, Amla, De Villiers, Du Plessis and JP Duminy; the latter pair both part-time bowlers too), a wicketkeeper/batsman (Thami Tsolekile or one of the younger contenders), and four specialist bowlers (Robin Peterson, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel) will give South Africa a team that is still highly capable of being the best in the world.
Their current captain, Graeme Smith, has laid the platform for a period of sustained dominance, but what of the person behind all those runs (the most ever in successful fourth-innings run-chases) and victories?
Kallis is eminently qualified to speak on Smith’s character: “It’s incredible to achieve what he has, after taking over at his age. He has proven a lot of people wrong, he has faced down so much criticism and he has always led from the front. I don’t think 100 Tests as captain will ever be done again.
“If he says the team needs to do something, he’s always the first guy to go and do it. As the opening batsman, he sets the tone, he takes on challenges and he never backs down. At certain times he’s in the opposition’s face and at others he’s just absorbing pressure. He’s learnt which character to be at certain times, and that’s the biggest improvement in his captaincy,” Kallis said on Tuesday.