Graeme Smith

Smith ends with a whimper

No fairy tale ending for South Africa's captain

Graeme Smith's final day as an active participant in international cricket began inauspiciously, and from there got progressively worse until it finished as simply forgettable.

The most capped Test captain in the game's history caught the sport he's served for more than a decade on the hop when he revealed – around 10.30pm Cape Town time on Monday night – that he would walk away from international cricket at the end of the current Test against Australia.

The 33-year-old would have hoped that moment might come late on Wednesday with his team hanging on for a spirited draw.

Or maybe even a history-making win in which he was a major contributor and from whose efforts his teammates gained strength and belief.

But as Stephen Waugh said, another long-serving Test skipper who was still in charge of the Australian team when Smith was appointed a Test captain 11 years ago, there are no fairy tales in sport.

Although only the most flint-hearted of opponents could have wished upon Smith the sort of day that came to act as the full point to a storied career.

Having sent traditional and social media into a tizz the night before, Smith took to the field this morning – in what might have provided the first clue as to the thinking behind his apparently sudden decision – as a hauntingly solitary figure.

Graeme Smith

Filing out to rejoin the relentless hammering they were copping at the hands of Michael Clarke's Australians, Smith's men stopped at the Newlands players' gate to enable their skipper to make the walk into the bright morning sun and similarly warm adulation on his own.

Unfortunately, it was early morning sun at a few minutes prior to 10 o'clock, such was the need to bring the regular starting time forward by half an hour to try and recoup some of the overs lost to rain on Sunday afternoon.

As a consequence, most of the white plastic chairs, grassy green banks and towering corporate boxes stood as starkly barren and silent as the flanks of Table Mountain as Smith doffed his cap and acknowledged the applause of barely 500 people.

Half of them members of Australian tour groups who were on time simply because that's the hour they'd been advised to get on their bus.

In truth, predictions that the ardent fans of Smith's adopted home town – he was born in Johannesburg but moved to the Western Cape upon finishing secondary school – would turn out in droves to pay homage overlooked the bald truth that he remains a polarising figure among his own nation.

Where the global cricket community sees fierce competitiveness, stoic determination and a defiant refusal to take a backward step, many South Africans see arrogance, churlishness and misplaced bravado.

In much the same way that countless Australians found the on-field demeanour of their hugely successful teams under Waugh and then Ricky Ponting as worthy of admiration but tough to love.

Given their propensity to share their opinions with everyone but their philosophies with radio shock jocks, it was no surprise to hear a local taxi driver – upon being told his fare was to Newlands to see South Africa's longest-serving Test captain in his final match – snort simply: "Should have retired years ago".

As the day wound on and the sun shone brighter, the crowd edged slowly closer to a third of Newlands' 18,000 capacity and it was clear that those who had ventured into Cape Town's leafy eastern suburbs on a Tuesday afternoon were there for the occasion, not the cricket.

Their team was being systematically dismembered as Australia relentlessly, unsympathetically ground out a lead of 500-plus.

The die was cast in the day's third over when opener David Warner, a burr beneath Smith's saddle since before the series began, flashed at Vernon Philander and edged a regulation chance to the left of the fielding captain, where second slip would have surely swallowed it.

Had there been a second slip in place.

It provided a thumbnail sketch of what many regard the inherent weakness in Smith's 11-year, 104-Test captaincy tenure – that he was far too quick to draw the shutters and take the conservative option where others might have pushed harder to secure a result.

Win or loss.

That became almost laughably obvious after lunch when – with Australia toying with the Proteas' attack and flailing the ball to all parts of the sun-soaked ground – Smith deployed all nine of his fielders to the boundary rope.

The instructions he then barked from long-on were rendered meaningless when Warner sent consecutive deliveries from first innings tormentor Morne Morkel scorching to the fence, forcing Smith to abandon his symbolic protest and adopt more conventional field settings.

At the time the declaration finally came an hour and a bit after lunch, and the long-suffering crowd awaited one final innings of characteristic courage and concentration from their leader, three of Smith's former teammates were fronting a media conference to reflect on his contribution.

Jacques Kallis, who preceded Smith into retirement by a couple of months, spoke for many when he said that, such is the way of South Africa's sporting character, it’s likely the value that Smith added to cricket in their country might sadly only be fully appreciated when he's gone.

Shaun Pollock, Smith's predecessor as skipper, remembered the brash, at times abrasive youngster who was handed the captaincy after but a handful of Tests and whose burly, ungainly batting technique he would never recommend to his own children, nor anyone else's.

And Mark Boucher, the 'keeper and lieutenant' who spent so many days camped next to his national and provincial teammate in the field, spoke about the initial lack of diplomatic savvy that Smith quickly grew to overcome to enable his survival and success in a sporting job that has few peers for the scale and complexity of political tightrope walking it requires.

Recalling Smith's first series against Australia, when he incensed his rivals by breaking the players' code and revealing exactly what sort of 'sledging' was dished out on the field, Boucher said his inexperienced colleague had sought counsel as to how best cope with the abuse he was copping.

"I told him what he should go out and say to Glenn McGrath – and I can't believe it, but he actually went and said it," Boucher recalled, still seemingly in shock.

The Newlands crowd then stood as one when Smith walked to the crease to begin his final innings, his team's notional target of 510 writ large in orange LED letters on the scoreboard directly in his eyeline.

Graeme Smith

The Australian players, as Smith had insisted his team do for Ponting's final Test innings in Perth in 2012, formed a guard of honour, at the head of which Clarke shook his opponent's hand and patted him softly on his broad right shoulder.

And then Smith himself stood tall.

Not for very long – just 16 minutes, during which he faced 11 balls and scored three runs. 

Just four and half runs less than his average for what's been a lamentable final series from such a proud, prolific batsman.

But he stood tall as Mitchell Johnson thundered a ball into his rib cage, and then stood a moment longer – like a wounded bear – as the ball looped from bat, to body, to close-in catcher.

The crowd then stood again. 

The Australians stood and applauded him all the way back to the players' gate.

And in keeping with Test cricket's long and rich history and as will endure for however long the game does, those who follow were then left to take up the legacy.