If ever a man symbolised his nation it was Smith

There is more to the Graeme Smith career than the most astonishing range of statistics. By his attitude — ranging from never-say-die, to can-do and what’s the problem? — he made his fellow countrymen forget the worst period in their cricket history. I hope leaders of that nation reward him for he deserves it, wrties Ted Corbett.

Graeme Smith was the ultimate South African cricketer: tall and broad, at his best when he was either leading from the front as he did in 117 Tests or rounding off victory as he did repeatedly in the fourth innings.

When he began, aged 22, he was their youngest captain; when he finished after his worst series he was their most revered player and described by his one-time opening partner Gary Kirsten as “the greatest captain ever.”

There is more to the Smith career than the most astonishing range of statistics. By his attitude — ranging from never-say-die, to can-do and what’s the problem? — he made his fellow countrymen forget the worst period in their cricket history. I hope leaders of that nation reward him for he deserves it.

Certainly he pushed Hansie Cronje and his devious ways into the background, gave his Test players and their fans something to be proud of once again and, with that famous jaw jutting, chest stuck out and barring the way like an old-fashioned castle portcullis his men discovered reasons for hope when other teams might have thought the cause was lost.

If ever a man symbolised his nation it was Smith. They had tamed their beautiful and dangerous country by drawing their wagons into a circle whenever the natives caused trouble; Smith was the epitome of the circling wagons, the defiant captain who did not know what defeat meant.

Now he has gone, troubled by an ankle that has never been right after an operation, with a young family to bring up; and leaving a team that has been defeated at home by a resurgent Australian side apparently on their way back to the top of the world rankings.

South Africa meanwhile are wondering how they can fill the space left by the double retirement of Smith and Jacques Kallis, another mighty cricketer.

Luckily, they have in AB de Villiers, a captain built to step into Smith’s shoes but where they will find Kallis’s steady mountain of runs heaven alone knows.

Life is not going to be easy for South Africa for a while.

It has never been simple to build a Test team mainly though their own twisted ideas. For most of their time as a Test side South Africa were without black players; let us blame apartheid. Now they are held back due to rules about including black cricketers in every international side.

Smith cannot be blamed for either problem. He has been one of their true greats with 9,265 runs and an average of 48.25 as a left-handed opening batsman who could bat long or score quickly. He first came to England in 2003 and showed his worth immediately with successive double hundreds in his first two Tests here.

In all he hit 27 Test hundreds and even when the experts had worked him out his runs came fluently. Bowl on his leg stump if you dare and before you had time to think “I wish that ball had been nearer the off stump” it was heading over the mid-wicket boundary.

He also had a hefty square cut and he could drive through cover point with the best of them.

It was not just his runs either. He had hands the size of the scoops on a mechanical digger and so he held 169 catches at first slip where he seemed to stand as if by contract. He also bowled but what bowling it was.

It is difficult not to chuckle at the memory of delicate little off breaks, often round the wicket, flighty stuff that might be suited to a slender girl and entirely out of character for a man who looked like Desperate Dan, well over 6ft tall and as wide as a sightscreen.

His captaincy was vocal, encouraging, cajoling, urgent: but that hid a decent understanding of tactics, of field placement and the needs of the moment. Let us face it, he won 53 of his 109 Tests in charge which means that he must have been doing something right.

It will seem strange to watch a South African innings begin without him just as it will seem odd when the fall of the first wicket does not bring Kallis to the wicket, at a slow even-paced march and begin what you know is almost bound to be a long innings.

“What were you doing at 3.30 on Boxing Day of this year?” some inquiring policeman might have asked Kallis and received the reply: “Well, I guess I must have been batting.”

No more. Kallis has gone although he was not noticeably any the slower or more uncertain there seem to be plenty of young players who will fill the gap.

Smith has left too when he found that he could no longer make his runs so easily. Graham Gooch told me all those years ago: “I just had to quit. I could not go on not making any runs and getting out in ridiculous ways.”

We all know when it is time to retire and when that time comes it is as well to admit that old age has caught us. Smith says he was thinking of retirement and that his thoughts may have been father to his decision.

Whatever the case we must wish him a good life hereafter. He deserves no less for he has brought so much strength and power and solid batting to the crease and set an example South Africa should never forget.