It was during Australia’s second innings against England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in the 2017/18 Ashes, when Steve Smith notched his 23rd Test century. He was the third fastest to the mark in terms of number of innings played.
The Boxing Day Test at the MCG, especially when it’s the Ashes, is a hallowed occasion. Heading into the Test, Australia had already killed the series, having won the first three matches. The hosts wanted another Ashes whitewash a la 2013/14, the English - on the other hand - looked to restore pride. But the pitch turned out to be as dead as the series itself was at that point, with only 24 wickets falling over five days.
For Smith, who has excelled on all pitches, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. After scoring 76 in the first innings, the then-Australian skipper eased to a ton in the second essay as the match drifted towards a lacklustre draw. In the four years between 2014 and 2017, Smith had scored 5004 runs – only Ricky Ponting (5077) had scored more over a four-year period (2003-06). Smith’s average of 75.8 was even higher than Ponting’s average of 72.5 when you compared the two.
Smith was reaching heights not seen since the days of Sir Don Bradman. In fact, his ICC rating of 947 in Tests was the second highest of all time, second only to Bradman himself. He achieved this with an unconventional technique. A technique which at first glance looks like one which can be exploited. Yet, whatever question Smith posed, opposition bowlers had no answer.
In pop culture, The Beatles had popularised the term ’Fab Four’ in the 1960s as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr formed the most successful quartet in music. 50 years later, the term made its way into cricket to describe Smith, Joe Root, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson. While the ‘Fab Four’ in music teamed up as one, here they were rivals. The four finest batsmen in the game, representing four different Test teams.
Very few players have made their presence felt as Joe Root did right from his first Test. Root’s induction to Test cricket was with baptism by fire. At the age of 21, the Yorkshireman battled against four Indian spinners on a slow and low pitch in Nagpur. The situation demanded infinite amount of skill and patience, and he produced the sixth longest debut innings, in terms of balls faced, by an England debutant. Root’s knock helped England draw the Test and take home an historic series win in India.
While Smith was at his zenith during the 2017/18 Ashes, at MCG, there was mounting pressure on the English captain Root to guide his team to a win. While a victory on such a drab pitch was never on, the travelling contingent were hopeful of a century from the skipper. Root came into the game on the back of a fab Test record: an average of 52.4 in 63 Tests was top tier. And when he came out to bat, he looked good. He scored a half-century, his third of the series. But 11 runs later, he succumbed. In the following Test at Sydney, he crossed 50 in both innings but failed to reach three digits.
Conversion rate has, for long, been Root’s kryptonite. Till date, he has crossed the 50-run mark 57 times. On the other hand, Smith has passed it 47 times. Yet, the latter has seven more Test centuries than the former’s 16. While Smith has a conversion rate of 48.9%, Root’s is just a mere 28.1%. In the Ashes, it’s a similar story: the Australian has converted more than half of his 50-plus scores into tons while the Englishman has converted only a third of his 50-plus scores.
At the end of the 2018 Ashes, Smith was on the top of the world. His consistency? Remarkable. His stats? Peerless. But the biggest of falls was just around the corner. At Cape Town against South Africa in March 2018, Smith – along with vice-captain Warner and team mate Cameron Bancroft – were found guilty of ball tempering which led to year-long suspensions. The dream run had ended. Not because of a flaw as a batsman. But because of a flaw as a captain.
This will be Smith’s first Test series since his return from the ban. At the 2019 World Cup, he showed glimpses of his old form but didn’t manage a single century. In England, he averages 43.3, 18 lesser than his career average. The 2015 Ashes series wouldn’t have pleased him a great deal despite scoring two centuries. While the first of those tons, a double hundred at Lord’s, resulted in a win, the second came in a dead rubber at The Oval. In the two Tests in between, he failed to get to double digits in four innings. England won both and then regained the Ashes.
In the same series, Root scored lesser than Smith but had the greater impact. In the fourth Test at Trent Bridge, it was he who backed Stuart Broad’s exploits with the ball to seal the series for England with a century. Yet, four years on, there’s a general feeling that the England skipper still has a point to prove.
While Smith was missing matches due to his ban, Root was enduring his worst run as a Test batsman since 2013. In 2018, the Sheffield-born batsman averaged 41.2. That’s not a bad figure, but when you’re a member of the famed ‘Fab Four’, you’d expect better. In 2019, an average of 26.3 and just one 50+ score in eight innings has seen his career average dip to below 50. Cause for concern? Yes. Cause for panic? Not when you’re as talented as Root.
Coming into the 2019 Ashes, there’s little doubt that Root and Smith are their respective teams’ marquee batsmen. But the duo face huge challenges. For the Englishman, it’s about getting those elusive big scores. For the Australian, it’s about showing that the ban has had no impact on his batting. For every challenge they overcome, it will only bring them closer to greatness.