In grudging admiration of Steve Smith
Even for an Indian fan, it's difficult not to praise his abilities on a cricket field.
On the first day of the third match in the 2017 Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Steve Smith scored his 5000th Test run. He pushed the ball into the off-side and crossed over for a leisurely single, barely acknowledging the milestone.
As the scoreboard at Ranchi displayed his photograph, Indian fans around the world must have sighed and rolled their eyes, just one question falling off their lips. How much longer is he going to torment us in this way?
It really feels like the Australian skipper has been around forever. Our minds are filled with memories of his stroke play and he is the indestructible wall that blocks our path. This must be how our dear Rahul Dravid made his opposition feel when they just couldn’t get him out.
Smith can defend and he can attack; he can counter both pace and spin. In the four Test matches the Indian team played in its last tour Down Under, he scored four centuries at an impossible average of 128.16. Could even the great Donald Bradman have been better in a series?
To the annoyance of Indian supporters, he has brought that form over to the subcontinent as well on the latest tour. He scored a fighting century in the low-scoring second Test, while in the third match yesterday, he carried his bat through with an individual score of 178 not out.
If the Indian bowlers can’t find the magical mantra to get him out, every fan knows the home side will need a miracle to defend its fortress.
An unorthodox technique
When we watch Smith bat, we are left wondering how he’s really that good. His strokes are hardly elegant. His bat comes down at an unusual angle when he flicks the ball to the leg-side and we wonder why he doesn’t roll his wrists like VVS Laxman. As he steps out of the crease, he doesn’t have Sachin Tendulkar’s majestic authority.
But if there’s anything that MS Dhoni has taught us, it is the fact that good technique is just the means to an end. Dhoni’s trademark ‘helicopter shot’ wouldn’t be found in any batting manual but it has won an innumerable number of matches for the country.
The connoisseurs may complain about the way Smith plants his back leg in front of middle stump and leaves himself susceptible to an LBW decision. They may point fingers at his posture, which sometimes isn’t perfectly balanced against the spinners.
But his strokes are crisp and his hand-eye co-ordination extraordinary. Ever since he returned to the team in 2013, bowlers have rarely beaten his defence. He has scored around the world with a Test average of above 60 and has, in fact, averaged over 100 in five of the twelve series he has played in the past three years.
When he isn't winning matches with his batting, his fielding saves the day for his team. Easily one of the best in the world today, both in the infield as well as the outfield, he has pulled off the most exquisite catches over the course of his career. When the ball leaves the bat like a rocket, he is the anti-missile defence that intercepts it before any damage is done.
No expert will be able to find fault with the way he dives, and we have to grudgingly admit that the oddities of his batting technique also don't matter. After all, if the way you looked while playing mattered at all in cricket, Katrina Kaif would have been in the cricket team instead of Bollywood.
A rival we deserve
Indians have long held Australia’s cricketing prowess as the benchmark their team must beat to prove themselves. From claimed catches to brain fades, every series is competitive both on and off the field.
Office meetings in India are paused to go watch the replay of a brilliant catch, even if Smith is the fielder. Ticking live scores are running on internet browsers on every computer. Groans can be heard from desks across the floor when a wicket falls.
(Video Courtesy: Cricket Center YouTube Channel)
To say that we are passionate about cricket is an understatement. It's like saying Virender Sehwag can hit a six. But while our unquestioning support for our team is quite apparent, our admiration for our opponents doesn't get highlighted as often.
The Australians, in particular, hold a special place in our hearts. Many hours have been spent in cafes across the country praising Steve Waugh's grit. We remember how Ricky Ponting demolished our dreams with one-handed sixes in the 2003 World Cup finals. Matthew Hayden's sweeping masterclass remains unforgettable.
Steve Smith is another member of that esteemed club. We appreciate his ravenous appetite for runs and if he leads his team to victory, we will applaud his genius. He is the rival we want for our team, and the one we deserve. What is the point of winning if you don’t beat the best?