Ashes test match - Australia v England, Jan 8, 2018. (Reuters/David Gray)
Well, the Ashes are over for this round of cricket’s oldest ongoing rivalry and, while the ODIs and T20s will be enjoyable, we will have to wait until Australia set off for England to discover the answers to a number of questions this series has left with us.
In Our Next Episode…
It seems that Cook and Broad have done enough to say their farewells at home, but it remains to be seen whether they can summon up one more winning series. Who knows who England’s spinner will be, or who Australia’s opening pair will consist of?
And, we will find out whether these are two average teams who will pass the urn back and forth depending on home conditions and the rub of the green, or whether Australia can maintain their advantage and respond to foreign pitches with results rather than whining.
The Agony and the Ecstasy
That may seem a little harsh given the 4-0 result, but the reality is that the difference between the two teams can be summed up in two words—Steve Smith. While Joe Root’s series must have felt years long as almost everything that could go wrong went wrong—from the weather turning against him and denying his best chance of a win, to his own body giving way in the crucible that was Adelaide.
In contrast, Smith took another step—or two or three—on the march to true greatness and surely made England wish there was room in the laws of cricket for another dose of Bodyline to put the colonial boy in his place. Oh, and the bowlers to execute it would help. It’s Smith’s dominance really raises the most questions. How do you do get him out has to be one, and England will need to find an answer before the next series if they are to win it.
But, those of us who don’t need to bowl to him or come up with plans with the nullify his influence have the luxury of spending our thinking on time on more interesting questions. That’s much more fun! Questions like—how good is Smith, really? Where does he stand amongst the ranks of Australian batsmen, past and present?
Time Will Tell, Ace
Perhaps the hardest of all to answer while someone is still playing—is he a very good player having a very good run, or someone who will join the ranks of the true greats of the game?If you listen to the Channel 9 commentary team he already has, but I don’t think I am being unreasonable in feeling they sometimes get a little…over enthusiastic.
If you are any sort of cricket fan, you’ve probably spent hours arguing about who are the greatest batsmen of all time. Even when it’s not limited to Australia, there is almost an unspoken qualifier hanging in the air—“after Bradman”. It’s the statistical elephant in the room. But, once you get that out of the way, sorting out the rest is hours of fun.
The Elephant Man
If you are talking Aussie batsmen, then conventional wisdom seems to be our Don is followed by Chappell, Greg not Trevor, then Ponting, and—I am hearing it more and more—Smith. That’s on a statistical basis, but I am of the camp that holds that stats can only tell us so much.
Yes, number of runs and the speed to milestones and conversion of centuries do matter, but so do things like the team around someone, the situations they batted in, and—though I know this is heart over brain—the way they went about it.
Australia’s Horatius, and Batting’s Platonic Ideal
No matter how many stats are thrown at me, I will never concede that Ponting is better than someone like Border, who carried his team on his shoulders and stood as the last line of defence against the scariest pace attacks who ever played again and again, or Trumper whose style of play was a work of art so beautiful that when Arthur Mailey took his wicket he was moved to say he “felt like a boy who had killed a dove”.
However, Smith beat all these Australian greats to 6000 runs, and to 22 centuries, and is still close to the top when you expand that list to include the rest of the cricketing world. If that wasn’t enough, even taking other nations into account—and over a reasonable span of games—his average is second only to Bradman. He stands above everyone—then again, Adam Voges is at three, a fine player but not usually trotted out in these debates.
Numbers Sometime Lie
Does that mean that he is actually better than the rest though? Would he be ranked above Hobbs or Tendulkar or Crowe just because he has a higher average or might end up with more runs or centuries? It may not be quantifiable, but the way in which my cricket lover’s soul recoils from the idea forces me to think there must be other factors than stats that matter.
But, I have to be fair, too, lest I be no better than the umpire who gave me out LBW in the last game of the year just gone. The sheer weight of Smith’s statistics can’t simply be ignored. It’s clear many people can’t get past the memory of a debutant who looked like he should have been playing in the MILO comp during the lunch break, or his odd mannerisms and expressions as he bats.
Credit Where Credit’s Due
Game after game, series after series, Smith keeps churning out the runs, in whatever situation he is confronted with, and winning matches for his team. You can’t ask more than that, and he has been playing long enough and has been consistent enough to prove he isn’t a player who has a good run when first starting until he is figured out, or a good player going through a purple patch or getting better as the opposition get worse.
It will only be when we can look back on Smith’s career that we will be able to know for sure, and decide where he sits in the pantheon. Whatever the final verdict, whether he joins the greats or just the very, very good, we should enjoy and admire in the knowledge that we might be able to look back and say we saw history made and another great on display—while it was happening.
David Goodwin is the Editor of The Salvation Army’s magazine,War Cry. He is also a cricket tragic, and an unapologetic geek.
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