For the last 10 years Graeme Smith has dominated the South African Test team as few captains in the world have ever done.
Smith was given the leadership after just eight Tests which must be the most striking example of selection skill in the history of the game. It was the sort of decision that usually goes badly wrong but far from leaving the selection panel confused and embarrassed afterwards the decision had its greatest reward this week when Smith led his side out for the 100th time.
Now we have to debate which captain was the greatest; and it is not an easy question.
Australia has always reckoned that captaincy was an afterthought — “pick 11 players and then choose a captain” — but it has had any number of great leaders. My own favourite was Steve Waugh but Ian Chappell, his brother Greg, Mark Taylor, Warwick Armstrong, Don Bradman . . . the list is endless.
England takes pride in producing Mike Brearley, Ray Illingworth and Len Hutton while the West Indies had, in succession, Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards who were both great performers as well as fine captains.
From the sub-continent — where the job has often been a poisoned chalice — the outstanding captain has been Arjuna Ranatunga who was one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year on the basis of his leadership. He was a Sri Lankan warrior who taught his men that they had to fight and field as well as bat and bowl.
Smith can claim to be the world’s best. He arrived in England, aged 22, built like a Churchill tank, wielding his bat as if he were leading the Norman invaders at the Battle of Hastings and made double centuries in his first two Test innings here.
It was, of course, his jaw that caught the attention. It stuck out so far you wondered if he could see his own toes and it reminded us of Desperate Dan, the comic hero many years ago.
Desperate Dan had a chin that was a wonder to behold. He was also a massive man who enjoyed cow pie for his supper so long as it contained a whole cow, his pillow was full of rubble and he shaved with a blow torch. I am no longer sure — since my comic days are now 50 years old — whether it was him or his grandma who knitted sweaters with a pair of telegraph poles. I can imagine Smith, like Brian Close, another Goliath of a cricketer, being able to perform all these feats and more.
On the cricket field he has already left a mighty mark although his captaincy is often described in less than flattering terms. I’ll have none of that. Under him South Africa has gone to the top of the tree and if he cannot claim credit for that who can?
His batting — we’ll forget those dainty little off-breaks from round the wicket which have brought him eight Test wickets at more than 100 runs apiece — has produced an average of 49.15 with 26 hundreds; in ODI’s he has an average of 39.13 and in T20 his strike rate is 127. In all his first class batting he averages above fifty; truly he is a colossus as his biography in Cricinfo calls him.
If he lacks the Brearley intellect, the Waugh drive, or the Ranatunga ruthlessness he can still be the greatest of all the Test captains, with his team on top of the Test world and, at 32, his place in history is assured.
When his cricket life is over he can still earn a living as a Desperate Dan look-alike.