On the first day of the third Test when Steve Smith reached his second ton of this series, Michael Vaughan tweeted,
“ I reckon @stevesmith49 is the best player ever to have looked so average at the start of his Test Career…#IndVAus #JustSaying''
The former England captain's initial skepticism is what several others also perhaps shared. I remember when Smith had batted for barely 10-15 minutes at Mohali on his first tour to India in 2013, a former India player vouched he wouldn't play more than a handful of Tests.
“Smith doesn't look technically equipped to last very long at this level,” he averred. “Bowlers will soon sort him out. He'll struggle particularly in conditions which help swing and spin.''
It wasn't difficult to understand why the former player was believed. Smith's crab-like footwork and fidgety approach while batting made him seem terriblly insecure and vulnerable.
A bundle of tics, twitches and clumsy mannerisms, he seemed to do all the things that coaches decry as detrimental to orthodox technique. How could he survive against topnotch bowlers, quick to exploit any shortcoming?
As it happened, Smith got 92 in that particular innings. But he didn't score too many thereafter. This seemed to settle the issue without causing the former India player, who must go unnamed here for diplomatic reasons, too much discomfiture.
Smith's rapid rise to batting eminence since that tour has been astounding. Within five years, the current Australian captain has completely overturned the original msigivings, leaving many experts red-faced.
He has become the most productive batsman for Australia, having passed 5000 Test runs in the ongoing Test at Ranchi, only his 53rd. Such prolific run-getting hasn't been seen since Don Bradman made 6996 runs in 52 Tests.
Smith's current average of 61.46 with 19 centuries also puts him only behind The Don for batsmen who've played 50 Tests or more. That said, obviously, even such phenomenal stats still don't make Smith comparable to Bradman whose runs-per-Test and average of 99.94 is unlikely to be ever breached.
Bradman was a freak. No other batsman in the history of the game comes even within striking distance of his extraordinary achievements. What his stats do provide, however, is a frame of reference for others to be assessed among themselves.
In the long list of high-scoring batsmen tailing Bradman, Smith is only behind Adam Voges (average 61.87, but played only 20 Tests) and above Sir Garfield Sobers, Kumar Sangakarra, Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid, Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Jacques Kallis — to name just a few —who have played 50 or more Tests.
It would be imprudent to bracket Smith with the names mentioned above yet: comparisons are best made and most valid after a player has finished his career. But there is little doubt that he is pushing hard for a place in the pantheon of all-time greats.
The larger point I want to make is about the weightage given to orthodox technique over almost everything else in cricket, and particularly where batting is concerned. It is almost if fine technical ability will inevitably deliver more runs.
This is countermanded by the success of unorthodox players like Smith — and before him Javed Miandad, also adept at last-minute adjustments — as well as the failure of many batsmen with immaculate technique to score runs prolifically. Not all great batsmen are necessarily products of orthodox technique. There are others — and their number is growing in the modern game — who develop their own technique to make an impact in the game. I subscribe to Sunil Gavaskar's view that while good technique is a tremendous advantage, sound temperament, courage, powers of concentration, ambition are even more vital to succeed at the highest level.
Technique all told is but a tool to meet challenges thrown up by bowlers, pitches and conditions. Fundamentally, when bat meets ball, how much the batsman is in control determines how good he is.
Orthodox technique undoubtedly has greater aesthetic value than the unorthodox. But good batsmanship is not a beauty contest. Rather, it is the ability to score runs - plenty of them — and perhaps more importantly, when they are most needed. In this, Steve Smith ticks all the boxes to be recognized as modern great....