“Big brother, little brother. That is the relationship I see,” says Usman Khawaja in the Season 2 of “The Test”, explaining the bond between Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne.
Khawaja goes on to say, “Marnus is the number one batsman in the world but he is not the big dog in that relationship. He has got one of the greatest of all time right there next to him.”
That last line from Khawaja is quite relevant. Labuschagne is the number one Test batter at present, 37 rating points ahead of the second-ranked Smith. In true essence, it is the latter who is the best Australian Test batter of this generation, by miles.
You only need to check the number of tough runs Smith has scored. India and England are deemed the toughest countries for Australian cricketers. In the 21st century, Australia have won only one Test series here despite touring regularly. Even those wins came early in the 2000s. As a batter, Smith averages 59.6 in England and 60 in India.
Australia's best effort post the series wins in the early 2000s came in 2017 (in India) and 2019 (in England). Both the chances were engineered by Smith’s sensational batting efforts. He scored 499 runs in India in 2017, 69 runs more than the sum of the next two Australian batters on the run-scoring charts - Matt Renshaw (232) and Peter Handscomb (138). In England, in 2019, in his comeback series, Smith pummeled 774 runs, outscoring the combined tally of the subsequent two teammates - Labuschagne (353) and Matthew Wade (337) - by 84 runs.
Smith has dictated the batting fortunes of his country. However, since the 2019 Ashes, the Smith effect has faded. That doesn’t mean he has endured a loss of form or Australia have suffered. Post the 2019 Ashes, the right-hander has averaged 49.2 in 24 Tests with a highest score of 200*. Any other middle-order batter will accept these numbers in the blink of an eye. But Smith has set the bar too high. He averaged 64.6 in 68 Tests until Ashes 2019. You can argue that one cannot maintain that high a ceiling for too long but on the counter, it will be fair to say that Smith has been good without being spectacular.
More than the runs, Smith’s legacy is carved through his crunch knocks. And they have been absent since Australia’s home season in the 2019/20 summer. It is a consequence of lack of opportunities as well as missing out.
Exploring the former first, Australia have played a heavy majority of their Tests in this period at home. The Down Under is a venue for daddy hundreds for the top-order batters. Smith bats at four and the likes of David Warner, Khawaja and Labuschagne batting above him have made merry. Labuschagne has shot to the number one Test ranking, racking up nine hundreds in home conditions.
In 12 out of 31 innings at home during this period, Smith walked out to bat with the platform already set - Australia’s score over 100 for the loss of two wickets. Against Pakistan in 2019, his entry point was 351/2 and 369/2. Teams like New Zealand, England, West Indies and South Africa hardly posed Australia a challenge for Smith to frame one of his famous crunch knocks.
But he has also missed out on simply piling up runs. There are 10 fifties that he hasn’t converted into a triple-digit score. With four hundreds, the conversion rate is 28.6%. Earlier, in his previous 68 Tests, it was 49.1%.
Overall, you can count only two crunch knocks from Smith post Ashes 2019 - 131 at the SCG versus India and 145* versus Sri Lanka at Galle. On both occasions, he scored over 35% of the team total. Australia didn’t win any of those Tests.
Perhaps the one series where Australia needed the ‘crisis specialist’ version of Steve Smith was the 2020/21 edition of the Border Gavaskar Trophy. After a poor start (scores of 1, 1*, 0, 8), Smith came back with scores of 131, 81, 36 and 55 to finish the series at an average of 44.7.
The Brisbane Test was especially an anomaly when Australia were desperate for their talisman to carry on in a home Test. However, despite getting starts in both innings, Smith was out for unfulfilled scores. It was a strange series for him.
A key factor to Smith’s success in India in 2017 was how he tackled Ravichandran Ashwin. He scored 132 runs versus the off-spinner, losing his wicket only twice across six innings. Overall, he is one among the only three batters to average above 50 against Ashwin in India while scoring over 100 runs.
In 2020/21, Ashwin turned the tables on Smith. He pouched Australia’s lynchpin thrice in five innings, conceding only 64 runs off 124 balls. A re-invented Ashwin challenged both edges of his bat.
To make it worse, Smith also suffered a soft dismissal to Washington Sundar in Brisbane, taking his tally of dismissals against off-spinners in the series to four, averaging a paltry 21.5. It is the lowest the former Australian skipper has averaged against off-spinners in a series (more than one dismissal).
The upcoming round of this Smith vs Ashwin battle holds the potential to decide the outcome of this India-Australia series.
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And not just that, India now hold a high-performing pace unit in home conditions. Smith also averaged 100 versus Indian pacers in 2017. That series didn’t have both Mohammad Shami and Mohammed Siraj.
Unlike the last few years, one can assume that he will have plenty of opportunities to execute those crunch knocks again. Warner’s record in India resembles a tale of a fish out of the water (average 24.3). Khawaja and Labuschagne have never played in India before. The same goes for Travis Head.
Back to one of the hardest countries to conquer, the Aussie contingent need Steve Smith to be at his spectacular best again, and probably perform the carry job like no other Australian batter has over the past two decades.