One does not need to be a rocket scientist to establish that Steve Smith is an important asset for Australia. Since Smith has remodelled himself as a proper batsman from the time when he was labelled a leg-spinner who can bat, watching him being dismissed in whites has been a rare sight.
However, if not for the heaps of runs he has scored, there could easily have been an alternate dimension to Smith’s career where he would have been ridiculed and discarded by the cricketing fraternity for his flimsy technique.
With a first-class average of 35, it was the pragmatism of the Australian selectors to identify talent and an immediate need for a good young batsman in the middle-order that created an opportunity for Smith to play as a proper batsman during their tour of India in March 2013. Once he settled into the role, Smith has grown as a batsman with each passing innings.
With a mindset that does not limit him to stick to a textbook style, he has engineered himself to make modifications based on the conditions and bowlers that he faces. Through an idiosyncratic ritual before every ball, he empowers his mind to forget about the last one faced thereby taking a fresh start every ball.
In his first Test back after a 12-month ban, Smith achieved a feat few others have - making Ashes hundreds in each innings of a Test. The first of these centuries saw him take his team from 122-8 to 284. The English bowlers’ inability to find answers to Smith’s fencing with the bat and an injury to their pace spearhead, James Anderson, paved the way for the selectors to unleash Jofra Archer in the second Test. The build-up was huge when the Australian coach, Justin Langer questioned Archer’s longevity at Test level to which the Barbadian replied that “Langer has another thing coming”. Archer could not dismiss Smith in the match but felled him with a bouncer on the neck that left Smith concussed.
While Smith’s injury was the biggest impact created by Archer, the fear that he has instilled with his pace that helped him to clock 90 miles an hour for fun (clocking the fastest over by an English bowler since the invention of the speed gun), the stamina that enabled him to bowl 44 overs in the game and the control which allowed him deliver accurate bouncers at the batsman’s body has left the Australians with a lot of questions to answer. Now that Smith has been ruled out of the Leeds Test, the Aussies wish Archer would have taken his wicket instead.
Smith’s behemothic presence in the Australian middle-order has led ex-cricketers and cricket followers across the globe to go gaga over him. Some reckon he is the best of the so-called Fab-4 while some even consider him as the modern-day Bradman. Justin Langer called Steve Smith the game’s best problem solver. But how good he really is? Let us delve a bit deeper.
Since Steve Smith started playing for Australia as a proper batsman in March 2013, he has scored 19% of the runs for Australia in the Tests he has played in. Among the others in the Fab-4, Kane Williamson is next at 18.1% followed by Virat Kohli at 17.3% and finally Joe Root at 15.9%. To the naked eye, these numbers seem very close. In reality, for Smith to have his contribution drop from 19% to 17%, we will have to assume that he featured in all the nine Tests he missed during his 12-month ban and registered a duck in every innings.
Since March 2013, Smith has scored 25 Test centuries, more than any other batsman. Even after playing the least number of matches of the Fab-4 during this period, he has 4 tons more than Kohli who has the next most. A Test century is an individual landmark. To win a Test match, the bowlers mostly need to take 20 opposition wickets. Having said that, while a good batting performance does not guarantee a victory but majorly assures that the team will not be defeated.
Since March 2013, Australia has either won or drawn 45 Test matches. If we exclude the period of Smith’s ban, this number stands at 40. Of these 40 Tests, Smith has scored a century in 23 matches. Such has been Australia’s dependency on Smith that 58% of Australia’s ‘Win/Draw’ Tests have been when he has been a part of the team and scored a hundred.
To elaborate on the stupendous nature of the above statistic let us go back to the previous assumption that Smith played all the nine Tests during his ban and fell for a duck (that implies that he did not score a century). The proportion of ‘Win/Draw’ Tests that saw Smith score a century falls to 51%. Such is the difference that Smith has created in contributing to his team’s success over other contemporary batsmen that the proportion after the assumption is still 13% above the next best – Williamson (38%). While it is obvious that Australia’s chances in this Ashes series are dented with Smith’s absence, the actual difference that he creates is humongous.
From an Australian point of view, they just need to win one of the remaining three games to regain the Ashes. But with no time to prepare for the Archer threat, they find themselves in a tricky situation for the third Test at Headingley. Australia will hope that they head to Old Trafford with the scoreline in their favour as they wait for their saviour to be back and do what he does best.