Ben Jones analyses one of the great series performances.
Cricket has a great history of literature, of eminent scribes writing in exhaustive detail about the exploits of long dead men, of their greatness, of their genius, of the impassable nature of their achievements. For some it adds to the allure of the game, and enhances the sense of a sport which sprawls over centuries and continents rather than resting in the mundanity of the present.
For some, it’s really, really, really boring.
Because how can you identify with the wonder of achievements so far gone? The buffers of uncovered pitches, of bowlers who smoked and drank like there was no game tomorrow, of bats an inch wide and half an inch deep, of no helmets, biased umpires, the complete lack of global scrutiny. In cricket, the past is not only a different country, but a different world.
Which is why Steve Smith’s efforts this summer have been so extraordinary. It’s why, despite partisan clinging and historic rivalry, it’s almost impossible to feel anything other than the vibrant thrill of being adjacent to history as Smith complies another ton, squirts another boundary, acknowledges another rabid crowd. This has been history for us, not for them.
Cricket makes a huge virtue of record-collecting, of distancing its current fans from its own greatness. Proximity is a rare prize, but one which English crowds have been afforded this summer. Smith has consistently been doing what cannot be expected. He is better than we could have imagined in 2010/11 when he first entered our consciousness, than in 2015 when he first arrived amongst the elite, than in 2018 when he first attained the quasi-bad-boy tag he now wears with reluctant pride.
Only one man (Sir Vivian Richards) has made more runs in four Tests across a series than the 774 which Smith has managed against England this summer. The showmanship of the West Indian may be lacking in the Australian No.4 but, ultimately, nobody will care, for the obstinate presence of Smith is almost more fearsome than Richards hooking English bowlers off his nose.
A nation sat and wondered, how do you get this man out. He gave them no pointers.
One point which has been a mainstay of our coverage this summer has been the extent to which Smith has overachieved in terms of the deliveries he has faced. Our Expected Wickets model looks at the tracking data of every ball, and calculates the likelihood that those deliveries would take a wicket, if bowled to the average batsman. In that light, the deliveries Smith faced this series would have have taken 20 wickets; bowled to him, that figure falls to seven , and at least three of those wickets came in extraordinary end-of-innings situations. The average batsman is not really a notion with which Smith rubs shoulders.
It was fitting then that the main greatness Smith surpassed today was his own, if only by a tiny margin. His series tally tipped over the 769 he managed against India in 2014/15 by only five runs, but tip over it did. This was the most prolific batting performance in a Test series since 1994, for an ever-growing generation the greatest performance they have ever seen in this format of the game. It was a slow motion break for history, not written in the thinning paper of the history books but played out for us, in real time, a live-action attempt on greatness.
English crowds began by booing him in Birmingham, and sent him on his way back to Australia with an ovation at the Oval. It doesn’t matter which side of the Ashes divide you reside, there is a constant, begrudging but ever-present respect for excellence. In 2011 the Sydney Cricket Ground stood for Alastair Cook, and in return South London acknowledged the wonder in Smith with equal force. The Ashes is a rivalry inherently born in equality, with no group stage or knockouts, a contest instead forged in the constant battle between two cricketing forces. When one side lands a crushing blow, the other nods, shakes it off, acknowledges the strength with which it landed. There is respect, at times begrudging, at times reluctant, at times frustrated, but it’s never far away.
Sydney, the city of Smith’s birth and his cricketing upbringing, is blessed with a rather unique climate. All day, from the moment you wake up, the humidity rises and rises, the air growing thick with moisture and heat and cloaking every action of the day with a sort of clagging, a lethartic lag, an unbelievable intensity that is inescapable. It’s wonderful in its own way, before a regular rainstorm comes mid-afternoon and tears it all down.
It’s a stretch perhaps to draw Steve Smith into this, on a metaphorical level, but we will nonetheless. For to watch Smith right now is to feel like you’re in the midst of an incredibly intense storm, existing in a bubble different to anything else you’ve ever felt before. At some point, the rain will come. It might be in two years, in four years, in eight years, but it’ll come. For now, we just sit back, the air thick with it, and relish the age of Steven Peter Devereux Smith.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.