Can greatness lie comfortably on Steve Smith's head?
The Ashes series in England has truly reflected the worth of former Australian skipper Steve Smith as one of the best in the World. In fact he has been the big difference between the two teams. It would not be wrong to state that Smith actually helped Australia retain the Ashes with his stupendous show with the bat. With scores of 142, 142, 92, 211, 82 and 80 the man has already come to be referred to in the same breath as the great Don Bradman. As long as cricket exists, the debate on who is the greatest after Don would rage on. With an average of 99.9 in Tests Sir Don will ever remain at the top of the line perhaps for eternity. It is doubtful if any cricketer would ever surpass the standard he set but the interest would always be on who would reach close to him next. Already Smith has outscored the Don with 1251 runs in the last 10 Ashes innings against the great man's 1236 (1937-46) and that means something. Being an Australian makes it even more easier for the English media to go to town with statistics to propel Smith as the best in the business as of now.
As said earlier the debate would continue. There was a time in the recent past when the focus was so much on Sachin Tendulkar and his greatness got a lift when Sir Don himself admitted that the Indian's style of play at times reminded of his own! These were words that were in golden letters for rarely would someone get such encomiums. Coming from the greatest himself, Tendulkar was blessed and indeed did any other batsmen in his era ever catch the imagination of the public as much as he regularly did. At a little over 16 years, he had entered the Test arena and by the time he played his last match, he had featured in 200 Tests and left a host of records to be acclaimed, the best Cricket has seen of a player. And yet once he left the scene, Virat Kohli seemed readying to become a worthy successor. Kohli, it must be said, had the wholesome appreciation from all cricket playing nations on his abilities as a batsman and a leader. To be sure he did prove his astuteness and steadiness with the bat to produce tons of runs. His work continues even as Smith has not just edged him to the number one position in World rankings but already getting touted as the next thing to have happened in cricket after Sir Don!
Whatever is said of him, Smith is hardly a stylist. Watching Tendulkar bat or Brian Lara or much earlier Sunil Gavaskar was always a marvel, a sight to behold. Cricket lovers would hardly stop admiring at the way they stroked the ball around. Coaches would be proud of their batting techniques, their perfect stance and indeed of anything and everything that the coaching manual would instruct. Do we get to see anything of this in Smith? He is unconventional and that at best is a mild mannered description. But the bigger hypothesis that Smith seems to foot forward is seeking a review of how cricket is seen now, not as a spectacle of beauty but as an action of effectiveness? Right from his stance, the fidgety movement across the stump, the twirl of the bat, twitch and shake and touch of the pad...well there is much that he presents before actually receiving a delivery! But for all this Smith proved in this Ashes series in particular that he is no sitting duck. If critics felt he was a sure leg-before case, he proved otherwise. In fact his batting boiled down to the common sense approach of a good hand-eye coordination. Set aside style or elegance when effectiveness is there and proved! Ask the English bowlers who were at times reduced to being clueless on what to bowl to him. The rare occasion that failure struck him was at the Oval in the final Test but then he had already done his job.
Yet for all this what a journey it has been so far for Smith! He had come into the national team on the strength of his leg spin bowling and then turned into an all rounder. More like our own Ravi Shastri. Smith was to make giant strides as a batsman and then as a skipper. Even as everyone sat back to witness Smith's career cruise ahead came the controversy to leave a stigma. The ball-tampering scandal he got involved as a captain, not only rocked the Cricket world but his own career and of two others. The one-year ban that followed could have been a back-breaker for any normal cricketer. But not Smith who showed he could take on the odds with the same panache that he exhibits at the crease. If anything he looks a better batsman than earlier. Has the ban invigorated him, even shaped him into a classier batsman? All that boos from the stands right from the time he returned from the ban hardly seemed to affect him. Smith remained focused even as his resolve strengthened. English cricketers faced the brunt of this!
While one must admire Smith's single-minded focus on his batting, getting runs no matter how, the worry is can he still erase the scar of the Cape Town scandal in his career. The Australian cricketers past and present as also the cricket loving fans laud him with the same intensity as they had frowned upon him earlier for his misdeed. Time may be a great healer but as former England cricketer Steve Harmison put it without mincing words to a news agency recently, no matter what Smith does as a batsman he cannot remove the label of a 'cheat'! How can he prove to the world what happened in Cape Town was an aberration?