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Watching a genius at work is never work

There has never been anything quite like watching Steve Smith bat through this Ashes Series.

Even when the ball has fizzed past the edge of his bat, there’s been a sense of inevitability about the outcome – Smith will finish on top. Rather like the great contemporary tennis champions Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who are so good that watching them might at times be described as boring.

However, this series has rarely been boring. Even during his run of supernatural form (672 runs at an average of 134.2 and counting) there was the terrifying moment at Lords when Smith was knocked to the ground by Jofra Archer, followed by the question as to whether he could find that perfect batting recipe again – supreme confidence, concentration and problem-solving ability at the crease.

Scores of 211 and 82 in the decisive Old Trafford test answered those questions emphatically.

Enjoy this remarkable run of Smith’s while it lasts.  We’re watching a supreme talent at the height of his powers. It won’t last forever... What will last forever though, are the memories of Steve Smith’s golden English summer, which still has one game to play.

The most runs scored in a test series?

Steve Smith is an outside chance to run down the mark for the most runs scored in any test series, which is 974 runs in five tests put together by Don Bradman in the 1930 Ashes Series in England.

As compelling as it has been watching Smith bring up the runs, his quirky mannerisms at the crease can’t be ignored. They seem to increase as each run is posted. Twitches, exaggerated leaves and a succession of nervy ticks. There’s nothing wrong with any of this for when the ball is bowled and the contest with the bat is on, he seems to be half a step ahead of the play. But it does bring to mind cricket’s great debate cricket between function and aesthetics.

Function and aesthetics

There are those who watched Bradman in his prime that said, apart from his incomparable scoring prowess, other players of his era such as Stan McCabe or Archie Jackson were more pleasing to watch. In the 18 years I covered cricket for ABC Grandstand and many years before that as paying spectator, the most interesting, prolific and aesthetically pleasing player I saw was Brian Lara.

His batting, like Steve Smith’s, was touched by genius, Lara’s range of shots was  as complete as the arc of his bat swing. The flourish of the follow through, the supple wrists, the ease of the footwork was complemented by a Steve Smith ability to compartmentalise the game. With Lara it seemed, as it does now with Smith, that when he set himself a challenge no target or benchmark was off limits.

In Lara’s case he holds the record for the highest test score, 400*, and the highest first class score, 501*. He’s the only player with two scores above 350 in test cricket. There’s records for runs scored in losing teams and runs scored off a single over. From 2005 to 2008 he was the leading run scorer in test cricket (until he was overtaken by another batting genius, Sachin Tendulkar).

On the ground on the day

An innings of Lara that I was lucky enough to commentate on was at Bellerive Oval in Hobart in December 2000. A weak and demoralised West Indian team was playing an Australia A selection in a mid-series tour match. Lara had hobbled through the first three days of the game troubled by a leg injury and seemed at odds with himself and the cold blustery Hobart November weather.

In my book Around the Grounds I describe what happened on the final day this way:

Late on the third day the weather was cold and chilly, the Derwent dark and grey and flecked with white caps. Lara was struggling to please the crowd. The next day the sun was out, the river was as flat and calm as the wicket, and Lara put on a masterclass, finishing with 231.

In the first over after lunch on that final day, Lara hit Andy Bichel for six fours in a row, each one to a different corner of the ground. You sensed at the time he did it because he felt like it. A particular form of genius.

So enjoy this remarkable run of Smith’s while it lasts. We’re watching a supreme talent at the height of his powers. It won’t last forever, even if it seems (like the reigns of Federer and Nadal) it might. What will last forever though, are the memories of Steve Smith’s golden English summer, which still has one game to play…

Peter Newlinds – former ABC Grandstand commentator and author of Around The Grounds


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