If I had my way, Steve Smith’s runs would’ve been scored by someone else. Usman Khawaja perhaps, or, even better, James Vince. Neither can match up to Smith as a batsman, but both are significantly more pleasing to watch. Smith is scrappy, ungainly, makes batting look like terribly hard work. Vince is elegant, smooth, and makes it look all so easy.
Since batting is about scoring runs, it’s probably unfair whenever the attractive batsman is more highly regarded than the more productive, workmanlike one. But that is often the case. Sir Don Bradman’s numbers, for example, are unmatched and he had a huge following in his time. Yet many Australians unapologetically voiced their preference for Victor Trumper, who came a few years before Bradman and was nowhere as prolific. “…So often have I listened to stories of him,” wrote Bradman teammate Jack Fingleton, referring to Trumper, “so often have I seen a new light come into the eyes of people at the mention of his name.”
But while there are batsmen who are considerably more watchable, there can be little doubt that Steve Smith is the best Test batsman since Bradman. There are many who’d cite the claims of Sunil Gavaskar and Sir Vivian Richards. Others would mention Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli. None of those mentioned, however, managed to hone their methods into the run-making machinery that the Australian has. Not a man given to hyperbole, commentator Ian Bishop tweeted this: “Steve Smith: Test batsman. Peerless in his generation.”
For me, he’d have been without peer in every generation save the one with Bradman as a member. Bradman’s unbelievable 99.94 average is unlikely to be surpassed. Smith is now second with an average of 62.96.
Smith’s technique is not one that any coach anywhere would ever teach, and yet it has proven to be extraordinarily effective for the batsman. Players and pundits and coaches and fans frequently haggle about what is supposedly proper technique. But technique is only important to the extent that it enables the player to achieve his objectives, which are normally to score runs and to avoid getting out. “The basic technique of a straight bat is sound for defence,” wrote Bradman. “However, there should be all possible emphasis on attack, on the aggressive outlook, and if technique is going to prove the master of a player and not the servant, then it will not be doing its job.”
When Richards first set foot in England as a raw, attacking batsman from the Caribbean, there were many who distrusted his technique. In Hitting Across The Line, the fitting title of his first autobiography, he said this: “When I first came to this country there were folks who felt I was coming from a hotter climate so I wouldn’t adapt to English conditions. They thought I wasn’t going to do well because of my style of play - of hitting across the line. I didn’t call it hitting across the line. I felt it was inventive…I felt I was an artist.” In a few years he became one of the most dominant batsmen in the game’s history.
The uniqueness of Smith’s technique is frequently mentioned: his grip; his “pick-up” in the region of gully; his excessive movement at the crease; and his tendency to walk across his stumps. It was mentioned by Nasser Hussain and a number of commentators at Edgbaston that bowlers, not unreasonably, often think they should bowl straight to him thinking his bat, presumably coming down at an angle and therefore slightly across the line, makes him a prime candidate to be dismissed LBW. But he hardly misses the ball on his legs. West Indies pacer Jerome Taylor actually executed that plan to perfection at Sabina Park in July 2015. By that time, however, Smith was 199.
On 34 in the first innings, Smith was given out by Aleem Dar when he offered no shot to a delivery from Stuart Broad that darted back to hit his pads and the batsman only lived to battle on for his country after the decision was reversed. Smith knew, immediately, that the ball would not have gone on to hit his stumps. He knew this because he is always precisely aware of where his off-stump is.
In this regard, he is not unlike other greats of the game like Rahul Dravid and Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Like a survivor stuck in the wilderness having to decide which plants are good for food and which are best avoided, knowing which balls to leave can be tricky, but it is often vital to a batsman’s longevity at the crease. Smith, like all the great leavers of the ball, is impeccable in his judgement and decisive in his movements.
One nagging concern coming into the Edgbaston Test was whether Smith would return from his one-year suspension with the same kind of appetite for runs he had when he was forced to leave. That question was answered more emphatically than anyone dared to expect with scores of 144 and 142. He had much to overcome: the rust; the booing; the adverse batting conditions, especially in the first innings where Peter Siddle’s 44 was the next highest score. But overcome he did and his team is eternally grateful.
He arrived at the crease with Australia in trouble at 17/2 at the fall of Cameron Bancroft’s wicket, a position that further deteriorated to 122/8 when he was joined by Siddle. It is therefore remarkable that Australia were able to get up to 284, not a huge total by any means but one that would have been considerably smaller were it not for Smith’s efforts. He almost single-handedly kept Australia in the game when they were in danger of being overrun, then led them to a place of dominance from which they were able to carve out a huge 251-run win. If he keeps on batting like that for the entire series, it is unlikely England will win.
“Bradman Bats And Bats And Bats,” ran the headline of The Evening News on July 21 1934, after his 304 in the fourth Test at Leeds. “He’s Out,” screamed the front page of The Star on August 30, 1930, after he was dismissed for 232 at The Oval. Smith could well inspire similar headlines in the near future.