Best since Bradman: Why Steven Smith is on his way to batting immortality
"Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right using of strength; and strength is not used rightly when it serves only to carry a man above his fellows for his own solitary glory. He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own."
The immortal words of America's eternal pragmatist and eminent reformer Henry Ward Beecher immediately spring into the conscious when the mind begins to make sense of Steven Smith's ethereal exploits in Test cricket.
As Christmas carols start to fill the air to replace a lingering sense of melancholy with fervent optimism, the Australian populace will acknowledge their captain's unshakeable will to bring the Ashes back to where it rightfully belongs. For, it was not too long ago when he publicly reacted to the nation's Hobart routing with strong words such as 'humiliating' and 'embarrassed'.
During November 2016, he had vehemently implored his troops to realise the significance of donning the Baggy Green. In the space of just over a year, the Australian players have rallied behind his war cry and gone on to rejuvenate the image of the team.
It does not come as any surprise that Smith himself has been at the forefront of the transformation. After all, the man himself knows a thing or two about a revolution.
When Ricky Ponting presented him with his maiden Test cap in 2010, the then cherubic 21-year old played as a specialist leg-spinner and batted as low as number eight.
From being imagined as the legendary Shane Warne's successor to becoming the world's top-ranked Test batsman, Smith's metamorphosis has been nothing short of incredible. The right-hander's relentless spree of barnstorming knocks have taken him to the very precipice of batting immortality.
Makings of an unorthodox genius
Almost every batting great has left behind an indelible and powerful memory. If Sir Viv Richards' swagger continues to reverberate among the hallows of perpetuity, Sunil Gavaskar's technical mastery lives on through Caribbean calypsos.
While Brian Lara's exquisite cuts remain entrenched in memory, Ricky Ponting's audacious pull adorns the inner vestiges of every true connoisseur of the game.
When future generations look back at Smith's astronomical record and wonder what the fuss was all about, their judgements may well be clouded through merely gleaning from vintage scorecards and videos styled to suit brevity.
Only those who are fortunate to be witnessing the makings of an unprecedented career can attest to the man's intrinsic gift of manipulating even cleverly laid fields.
Extra Cover: Decoding Steven Smith’s unique batting technique
Even as purists shake their heads in disbelief at his back-and-across trigger movement, Smith amasses runs aplenty by relying on extraordinary hand-eye coordination as well as an impeccable capacity to find gaps. Upon adding an insatiable appetite of runs to the equation, the genesis of a batting monster takes shape.
While naysayers may point to his apparent weakness at tackling swing-friendly conditions, the vast majority of seamers have not been able to exploit the ostensible chink in his armour. All the talk of his so-called Achilles' Heel may have emerged due to him getting squared-up far too often. Yet, Smith continues to remain unflappable at the crease even if the bowler has the gall to claim moral victory.
In his own league
A brief summary of Smith's numbers can shed light on his jaw-dropping conversion rate. Among a select set of batsmen with more centuries than fifties, he has crossed the fifty-mark on 43 occasions and converted as many as 22 of those into three-figures. The fact that only two of his tons have come in losing cause speaks volumes of his propensity to influence the outcome of Test matches.
Alongside the likes of Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root, he is supposed to be part of the modern-day 'Fab Four'. However, his pedigree in the purest format of the game has seen Smith leave his competitors in the dust.
Juxtaposing the away records of the four aforementioned batsmen reiterate the Australian's supremacy. While the troika's average hover around the mid 40s, Smith's corresponding average of 57.29 (with ten centuries and as many fifties) vindicate his ability to dominate bowling attacks outside his comfort zone too.
The manner in which he handled the rampaging spin duo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in the 2017 Border-Gavaskar Trophy highlights Smith's growing prowess against the turning ball. At a time when Australia are desperately searching for means to end their subcontinent woes, such a rare attribute swells his stature among the men who matter.
Can he withstand the test of time?
Among all batsmen who have played a minimum of 50 Tests and scored at least 4000 runs, Smith's current* average of 62.32 is perched second in the long and illustrious history of the game's traditional format. Only Sir Donald Bradman, with a towering average of 99.94, stands above the 28-year old in the annals of batting greatness.
Top 10 averages in Test history (Minimum of 50 Tests and 4000 runs)
As is the case with every iconic cricketer, the transcendental quality of Smith evinces a hint of diffidence whilst speaking his name with the pantheon of exalted stalwarts.
Would he have been as effective on seam-friendly surfaces against the shrewder pacers of yore? Factoring his unorthodox technique into account, would he have been good enough to stave off Malcolm Marshall's profound tactical nous, or Wasim Akram's perplexing swing?
Some may postulate that the worth of any prominent player is only as good as his opponent. Apart from the tenacious Dale Steyn, there has not been any stand-out fast bowler capable of wrecking teams across a wide variety of conditions during the last seven years.
Even as Smith is at the peak of his powers, the senior pacer is set to return from a lengthy injury-induced lay-off. With Steyn joining the likes of Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada in South Africa's quiver of potent weapons, a challenging away series awaits the in-form Australian skipper during March.
Looking a lot farther ahead, Smith will certainly face a sterner test at the latter stages of his career. When he enters the mid-30s and the vagaries of time begin to creep into his game, his excellent hand-eye coordination may turn from suitable ally to staunch nemesis.
However, much like those distinguished gentlemen whose company he seeks, one would still expect him to find myriad ways to contribute to the team's cause. For the moment, he is in the midst of what is shaping up to be an extremely fulfilling journey. Aficionados ingesting the sterling art of batting must behold the zenith of Smith's alluring legacy.
(*Note: All Statistics are accurate as of 21st December, 2017)