This home season, we have had the privilege of watching the best batsmen of the current generation. Kane Williamson, Joe Root, Virat Kohli and now, Steve Smith. So, perhaps, one might say that we are in a position to judge. Of the lot, the Australia skipper stands out the most – well, he literally does.
While the others seem pretty conventional – in terms of technique at least – Smith could possible conduct an orchestra with his movements.
At last count, there are at least 19 distinct movements before he finally gets into his stance to face the bowler. He fidgets and he fidgets. Then, as the bowler runs in, he fidgets some more. The bat seems to come from gully (as against the norm of being somewhere between the off-stump and first slip), the stance opens up (exposing the back leg) and he almost seems side-on. But then, magically, amidst all that chaos, it all comes together just in time for the bat to meet ball.
It isn’t pretty to look at but it is efficient… brutally so. Smith’s career average after 53 Tests is 60.73 – in line with the greatest to have ever played the game, only Bradman stands in a different league. In this series, one that has been dominated by bowlers on raging turners, his average stands at 72.25 (289 runs). At Ranchi, he calmly worked his way to another century – 117 off 244 balls and helped Australia reach 299/4 on day one.
There are many batsmen who are very good at home. It’s understandable as well. The conditions are known and you always have the advantage over the opposition in that sense. But what marks Smith out is how he fares away from home.
Steve Smith: 59.10 (nine of his 19 hundreds)
Virat Kohli: 44.61 (nine of his 16 hundreds)
Joe Root: 44.89 (three of his 11 hundreds)
Kane Williamson: 46.41 (nine of his 16 hundreds)
While these numbers might drop (or rise) a little on Friday depending on how much he eventually makes, Smith has shown himself to be adept at facing spin and equally comfortable against the fast bowlers in varying conditions. Not bad at all for a player who started his Test career as a bowler and batted at No 8 in his first Test. The difference in averages, honestly, is stark. Can someone be so much better than the rest?
Going beyond the numbers
Then, some might argue that sometimes numbers do not tell the whole story. But take into account the kind of build-up he had to the Ranchi Test to see another facet of his genius.
The DRS controversy had refused to blow over in the break between the Bengaluru and Ranchi Tests, the series was tied at 1-1 and Virat Kohli’s side was increasingly looking like one that had discovered it’s joie de vivre. Smith was enemy No 1 and he seemed rather remarkably nonplussed about it.
On the eve of the match, Smith had dismissed Kohli’s “cheating” claims as ridiculous. But the hatchet was far from buried. If anything, there seemed to be a silent ratcheting up… silent because the boards had decided they wanted peace.
The toss saw both skippers studiously avoid each other, no eye contact and just a cursory handshake. They clearly wanted to settle this on the ground.
In total control
After a quick start, David Warner threw his wicket away. Smith walked in, buckled down and decided to bat. He didn’t look for quick runs, he just looked to stay at the wicket and the rest – like his batting technique – just fell into place. Lesser batsmen would have been distracted by the ruckus, but the 27-year-old always seemed in total control.
For over an hour on day one of the Ranchi Test (between the 69th and 83rd over), Steve Smith was stuck in the 90s. Being that close to the landmark might have made other batsmen nervous, but the Australian skipper was more than happy to watch Glenn Maxwell hog the strike. He seemed comfortable – as comfortable as all the fidgeting can make him seem.
When the last ball of day one was bowled, the duo were still standing, having stitched together a 159-run partnership, with Smith as the junior partner – 67 runs to Maxwell’s 82.
“Brain-fade” artist or not, this bloke can bat. Almost reluctantly, acting skipper Ajinkya Rahane shook his hand, congratulating him. Today, India had been trumped.
It is a simple game
As they were walking off the field, Michael Clarke asked Smith what he thought of Maxwell’s innings and his answer, while not getting into specifics, revealed how he sees the game.
“He had a plan, he stuck to it and put the bad ball away. It’s simple, really.”
Well, it’s rarely ever that simple. But, perhaps, in Smith’s mind it is. Most people have a problem sticking to their goals but the Australian skipper somehow almost never seems to have a “brain fade” while batting – at least not when it is related to his batting itself.
Being able to control what you want to do on the pitch is a huge part of Test cricket and more than anything Smith seems to have mastered that aspect of his game. He will, however, know that his job is far from done.
The Ranchi wicket is good for batting and will probably stay that way for at least a couple days more. If Australia want to put India in a spot, they will have to bat big and in their captain, they probably have the best man for the job.