When you look through a list which details cricketers who have captained in the most Tests, the name that comes out on top is Graeme Smith. If you look at the number of matches column in such a list, then you will see that Smith is the only player to have captained in over 100 Tests.
For Smith, longevity didn’t harm his captaincy record. In 109 Tests as skipper, South Africa won 53 which means that he had an impressive win percentage of 48.62.
Smith was given the captaincy of the South African team at the age of just 22. In fact, when he led his country for the first time in Tests, he was the third youngest Test captain ever at the time. In the 16 Test series (dating back to late 1998) that the Proteas played before the left-handed opener became captain, they’d won 13 and lost only two – both against Australia who were the best team of that era. Hence, there was of course going to be pressure on Smith to deliver results.
Smith’s reign as Test captain didn’t get off to the best of starts. After leading his team to victory in Bangladesh in his first series as captain, South Africa would win just one of the seven series that followed which included four losses. Three of those defeats came in Asia (versus Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India) and the fourth one was against England at home.
Those last two series losses, though, resulted in some massive positives for the Proteas. First, in India, Hashim Amla made his international debut. And then in the home series against England, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn got their first taste of international cricket. These three players would go on to play a significant part in taking South Africa to the summit of the ICC Test rankings under Smith.
If you go around asking cricketers what they’d most want to achieve as a team and there will be a good number who talk about winning the World Cup. And there will be a good number who’d say that they’d like to win an away Test series against a top team. When India won a Test series in Australia for the first time ever during the 2018/19 season, India captain Virat Kohli had said: “This is the proudest moment for me since the time I have been playing." This shows how much an away series win in Tests means to a player.
Hence, perhaps the most impressive record that Smith possesses is the fact that South Africa did not lose a single away Test series under his captaincy from 2007 to the end of his career with his final overseas series coming against Pakistan in United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2013. Yes, that’s right. Seven years, 12 series, zero losses.
Out of those 12 series, South Africa had won eight. That included two Test series wins in Australia and England, and one each in Pakistan, Bangladesh, West Indies and New Zealand.
When we look at individual matches, then South Africa played 32 Tests during this period and had 16 wins, 11 draws and just five losses. This leads to a win/loss ratio of 3.2 and a win percentage of exactly 50. To put those numbers into context, during the 2007-13 period, the team with the next win/loss and win percentage was Australia. And their corresponding numbers were 0.75 and 31.58 respectively.
Australia, from 2000-07, are considered as the greatest Test team of the modern era. So how do South Africa of 2007-13 compare to that Australian team in terms of away results? The Proteas are not far off when it comes to the win/loss ratio of the Australians (3.63) but fall quite short when it comes to win percentage. During Australia’s dominant eight-year period at the start of the century, they had won 70.73% of away Tests they played.
While South Africa of 2007-13 might be behind Australia of 2000-07 in winning matches, it must be noted that the latter did lose a couple of away Test series during their period of excellence. On the other hand, as mentioned above, the Proteas remained undefeated on this count.
So how did South Africa under Smith manage to achieve such magnificent results in away Tests? The primary reason would be the spine of the team. Smith, along with Amla, de Villiers, Steyn – all of whom made their Test debuts under him – and Jacques Kallis were incredibly consistent. And they all seldom missed a game during this period.
Out of the 31 Tests that South Africa played between 2007-13, Smith and de Villiers featured in every single one of them. Kallis and Amla missed one Test each while Steyn was in the playing eleven for all but two such matches. Out of the five, the four batsmen (namely de Villiers, Amla, Smith and Kallis) all averaged 50+ while Steyn took 140 wickets at an average of 24.73 and a strike-rate of 45.2 in away Tests from 2007-13. If his batting wasn’t enough, Kallis also took 41 wickets.
There were some outstanding supporting acts too. Morne Morkel was another bowler who played 30 away Tests during this period and he took 99 wickets in those matches. Vernon Philander played his first away Test in 2012 and under Smith’s captaincy, he took 43 wickets at an average of 22 and a strike-rate of 48 in away Tests.
When it came to the batting, Smith had very reliable opening partners in Neil McKenzie and Alviro Petersen. JP Duminy and Faf du Plessis played big roles in South Africa winning in Australia in 2008/09 and 2012 respectively. And in Mark Boucher, the Proteas had one of the most reliable wicketkeeper-batsmen in the world. During the late noughties, Ashwell Prince, Makhaya Ntini and Paul Harris played crucial roles as well.
An incredibly consistent bunch of players who formed the spine of the side, backed up by some very fine cricketers who made superb contributions when called upon - Graeme Smith’s South Africa twice reached the number one ranking in Tests, once in 2009 and later in 2012. On the second occasion, they got there after a series victory in England which was fitting for a team that had such a brilliant away record.