Steve Smith: A certified original
- Steve Smith and the art of dancing on the cricket pitch.
Back and across. Forget the world. Hit the ball. Repeat.
If not for the visible sparkling light blue-eyes and pale skin, this might look like a remarkable dancing machine operated by a complex algorithm. But it isn't; this is a remarkable cricketer, a batsman programming his exaggerated fidgeting as though he codes it on a supercomputer in a millisecond before ravaging the gargantuan green field.
This English summer, any cricket fan watching Steve Smith bat could almost hear him whispering "Righty-oh mate, bring what you got!"
Since my earliest days of cricketing education, I can remember some of the greatest batsmen who devoured the English summer like Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting and Graeme Smith, but none this confident. None.
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Smith batting proficiently in English conditions wasn't a new thing, since we had seen the genius earlier in 2015 when he top-scored with 508 runs. Who would dare to erase that sublime double hundred from the honours board at the home of cricket?
But this time it wasn't normal, in any sense of the word.
After the Newlands saga, it was tough to hold back from throwing in our moral judgmental axe. It's just human tendency but like all human tendencies, not absolute; it changes at the rate of heartbeat.
Smith is either a cheat or a hero, and the moral judgement on that is very subjective. Some forgive, some forget, while some hold on to the past.
The mentally uplifting World Cup final circulated an air of rare pride among Brits in their national sport. But if the World Cup had a sense of pride, then what was about to follow was a concoction of pride, vanity, ritual and religion. Whatever you call it, this was an ultimate test to prove their true cricketing virtuosity - the Ashes.
England teams had been successful at holding off the Aussie assault for 17 years, but with the world at their feet, they were on a different high this time. Much to the English fans' misfortune though, they were brought crashing down to earth by one man.
Foiling every single bowling strategy, Smith belted the whole of England - including the booers - for a mammoth 774 runs in four Tests (seven innings) at an average of 110.57. His exploits including one double hundred, two more hundreds and three fifties.
This English summer was theater at its best. Smith came on to the stage as an antagonist and left as a protagonist. With every run he scored you could see him feel one moral nail, slapped on his body from Newlands to Edgbaston, coming off. It truly was a cricketing de-crucifixion in the flesh.
Smith has an aura of his own. From his shuffles to his bat follow-through, everything is unique. You can't fit him into any orthodoxy school. But some, as they have always done to players like him and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, still try to. And when they can't find the whip of his legs across the stumps in their books, they term it as freakish and unsavory.
His backfoot straight drive isn't a classical Tendulkar punch or a Dravid push; rather, it is a full-blooded push-drive. There is a flow in his swing that you can't find in anyone else. He swats the ball after clearing his leg sometimes, and at others he he just jabs it over cow-corner at will.
Smith's short-arm jabs are evidence of his elastic forearms and flexible wrists. His cover drives to an over-the-wicket ball, where he unusually brings his left leg forward before the follow-through, is a totally unique.
But there is one normal thing in his abnormal batting macrocosm: the first principle of batting with a straight head at all times. Everything else from his twitches, tics, reflexes, oohs and aahs are just by-products out of his ceaseless dance on the pitch.
Although Smith is statistically one of the all-time greats in Tests, he is still struggling to get ahead of Virat Kohli (his biggest competitor) amongst pundits. Smith averages just below 65 in Tests while Kohli is 12 runs short, having played a dozen matches more than him.
I can't remember the last time Smith didn't score 400+ runs in a Test series of four or more matches. Smith scored 499 runs in a series in India where Kohli couldn't manage half of that.
World Cups are considered to be at the apex while judging limited-overs batting because of the pressure and expectations, and Smith outshines Kohli there too. Smith has three 50+ scores and a 100+ score in four knockout games whereas Kohli, the greatest ODI batsmen of this era, hasn't managed a single 50+ score in six such games.
But if Test cricket is solely considered as the benchmark for batting greatness then Smith is in the Bradman arena, while Kohli is still finding his place amidst the Tendulkars and Laras.
If you follow their approach closely, you can see that Kohli, with his neatly trimmed thick beard, plays shots that are filled with a sense of imposing masculinity - especially those cover-drives along the ground. On the other hand, there is a childlike naughtiness in Smith's entire approach. You only need to watch a video of their practice sessions to get it.
Kohli's practice sessions are filled with the dictation of a proper "stroke" and full of self-admiration - "Yeah, boy" and "Yes, boy". They feel so staged that every posture of his could be a bronze bust outside Feroz Shah Kotla.
Meanwhile Smith's leaves and shots are so outrageous that they could easily qualify for a new emoticon. His sounds - "Hoo Yeah" are like that of a cartoon character enjoying a funfair ride.
Kohli with all his grace and elegance can only be a masterful copy of the batting textbook, whilst Steve Smith is a certified original.
Can we call Smith's past two years a Niki Lauda kind of a comeback? A resurrection like Tiger Woods? Or is it still a matter of a 'culprit' still trying to get the stain of blood off his hands?
To be honest, it doesn't really matter. If you truly love cricket, especially the dying art of Test batting, you wouldn't want to miss the chance to be a part of history, to witness the greatest Test batsmen of this era - no matter what his you may think of his integrity.
Just as I was writing this, I got a notification that said: "Steve Smith has been dismissed for a duck in Sheffield Shield)! This is not a drill!" The commentator went on, "Take a photo of that scoreboard because he has got a duck next to his name."
It's his first duck in 54 first-class innings. Thank god he is human.
But knowing Smith, he won't mind this one. He would rather just spit on his hands, rub 'em, take a blinder, and then move on.Published 16 Nov 2019, 15:13 IST