It was back in March 2011, but I still cannot forget that face.
Graeme Smith sat crestfallen, even as he looked helplessly at a bunch of overenthusiastic mediapersons keen to rile him.
It’s a captain’s predicament; an obligation he had to honour.
South Africa, one of the favourites to win the World Cup that year, had suffered a shock quarter-final defeat to New Zealand in Mirpur (Bangladesh), after being in command for more than half the match.
For a side known for goofing things up in big matches, South Africa had once again justified the ‘chokers’ tag’. It was left to their captain to explain that inexplicable defeat.
Smith was having a harrowing time. Some of the questions were veiled, personal attacks; some, direct taunts.
‘Earlier, South Africa was called chokers. Now, after this defeat, you are being called jokers. What do you have to say?’ asked an Indian scribe.
It was a disgusting question, no doubt. But, then, we Indians, though emotional and defensive when it is about us, can be very ruthless and critical when it is others. Criticising other states/countries, its people and its failures comes naturally to us.
Doesn’t it?
The above question was a manifestation of the same attribute.

Smith did not answer for some time. Maybe, he did not have one. Maybe, the question hurt even more than the defeat. Maybe, he was trying not to lose his temper.
His eyes spoke volumes, though. The pain in them was quite apparent.
“No one likes to be called chokers,” he finally muttered, almost in tears by that time.
“But the fact is we have let ourselves, and the whole of South Africa, down and there is no excuse for that,” he added.
Had it been the captain of India’s team, the list of excuses would have been quite long.
But here was a captain owning up to his team’s failure, his failure. To his credit, Smith endured the ordeal with elan.
“This jinx of premature exits in ICC tournaments has been going on since 1992,” continued Smith, adding, “Hopefully in the future the players will be able to go all the way and South Africa will win the World Cup.”

The last line was about hope. But Smith ensured he wouldn’t be the one leading the future lot of players. He quit as ODI and T20 captain soon after that defeat.
Now, by announcing his retirement all forms of international cricket after the Newlands Test, the 33-year-old has made certain he won’t be there as a player as well when South Africa mount another challenge for that elusive World Cup trophy early next year.
There’s no questioning the fact that Smith was one of the best captains, ever. Statistically, he was the most successful, having led South Africa to a record 53 victories in his 108 Tests in charge.
Under his able leadership South Africa rose to become the top-ranked team in Test cricket.
Besides, his impressive resume also includes two away series wins against both Australia and England, a feat no captain has performed.

As a batsman, too, Smith led from the front. Well, literally! More than 9,000 Test runs (avg: 48.49) and 27 centuries underlined his credentials as an opener par excellence.

However, every captain in contemporary cricket has some regret or the other.

Steve Waugh failed to conquer the ‘Final Frontier’ (India), Ricky Ponting couldn’t win an Ashes series on English soil, Sourav Ganguly, despite being a worthy captain, had precious little to show when it came to achievements.
Mahela Jayawardene finished second best in all the ICC finals he led Sri Lanka to, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni leads a side that simply can’t win overseas.
Likewise, failure to win the World Cup will definitely be the biggest regret in Smith’s otherwise illustrious career.
Considering his credentials as captain, he probably deserved it more than anyone else.