After a chastening day in the third Test when their official ranking as the world’s No 1 Test side came under severe threat from Australia, South Africa on Monday night received the hammer blow that Graeme Smith, the man who above all others had helped them reach such a status, would retire from international cricket at the end of the game.
As Cricket South Africa chief executive Haroon Lorgat later admitted, Smith’s decision – first told to the players after stumps in Cape Town – was something of a shock but also displayed the hard-headedness that has made him the most capped Test captain in history.
Smith said: “This has been the most difficult decision I have ever had to make in my life. It’s a decision that I have been considering since my ankle surgery in April last year.
“I have a young family to consider, and I felt that retiring at Newlands would be the best way to end it because I have called this place home since I was 18 years old.
“I have always been someone who has left everything out there on the field for my team and for my country.
“I’m extremely honoured and proud to have had the privilege to lead so many wonderful players and to have been a part of building the Proteas culture to what it is today. It is a culture that every player can be, and is, immensely proud of.”
The 33-year-old opener has played 347 matches for his country since making his debut in 2002 and scored 37 centuries, 27 in Tests and 10 in one-day-internationals. The current match against Australia is Smith’s 117th Test appearance, and he came into it having scored 9,257 Test runs at an average of 48.72. He has also played 197 ODIs, averaging almost 38, and 33 T20 Internationals.
Smith’s bombshell came at the end of a difficult day when South Africa were dismissed for 287, still 207 short of Australia’s first innings. Australia captain Michael Clarke chose to bat again rather than enforce the follow-on. In the remaining six overs his side moved swiftly on to 27 without loss, giving them a lead of 234 with two full days left.
The home side had begun their innings aggressively, and by lunch had sped to 122. But they had lost three crucial wickets, including Smith for five.
When South Africa resumed after tea on a paltry 200 for 6, the ball was reversing, and the home team was in deep trouble with Faf du Plessis still there on 42. He became fluent and aggressive until he overreached himself driving at Mitchell Johnson, who finished with 4 for 42, and was caught for 67.