We hear the term ‘perfection’ rather frequently in the world of cricket. It was spotted in the 2000s when Ponting pulled one off the front foot. It was sensed in the straight drive of the great Tendulkar. Wasim Akram’s inswinging yorkers were executed to near ‘perfection’! Kallis embodied the craft of the ‘perfect’ all-rounder with a state of timelessness. Cricketers, regardless of technique, have often seemed in a surge for perfection. It’s a seemingly endless quest for an aesthetic value that one may spend a lifetime improving. Often, it doesn’t occur to us that a fan’s support for his ‘perfect’ cricketer could turn into a vicious argument devoid of recognizing the less-fashionable! The top of the mind recall for style being Lara, Chanderpaul not so much!
Whose technique was spot on- Gavaskar’s or Vishwanath’s? The strange thing about debates themed on ‘perfection’ is that they can be unsparingly endless while the imperfect artists in this great game of ours always have something to work on, things to get ‘right!’
In that sense, to be perfect is banal, uninteresting even, for there’s nothing more to improve upon.
In cricketing lexicon, imperfection is somewhere Steve Smith! Wondering how?
What is Steve Smith’s proximity to the lair of perfection? How often have leading cricket journals produced pictograms hailing his elbow posture or hand movement as being ‘ideal’ to be prescribed to youngsters?
Which particular stroke in his armory would you find straight out of the copybook style? How often does Steve Smith produce a shot that the likes of Harsha, Bishop or Slater would advocate in classic commentary tonality, “any youngster watching, that’s the way to do it?”
In an age where the perfect cover drive comparison between Kohli and Babar is transforming the social media landscape into a turf-war; who hit it more elegantly, where the disguised slower one in the shortest format is vouching for more spearheads than just DJ Bravo- Steve Smith, is comfortably distant from any aesthetic value that connotes perfection.
Rather in an era where power hitting is the new norm, here’s a batsman who’s making headlines for the art of leaving the delivery, instead of playing one.
And that too, deploying a rather unorthodox technique, something that won’t be rated all that highly by Sir Sunny, may have never pleased Martin Crowe, and may just compel a Geoffery to Boycott the act altogether!
Yet Steve Smith’s cricket- that lacks the grace of a Cook, is bereft of the brute power of Gayle and is nowhere close to the sublime Tendulkar personified- has numbers. And guess what, even impact.
Yet, it is anything but insipid.
It is, in fact, involving. To say with the least effort, perhaps it suffices to say when Steve Smith is on strike, cricket juggles between the probable and the improbable with every passing delivery and the nervy seconds accompanying them.
A few months back, last year, at the height of Australia’s red-ball rivalry with England, Smith-minus the flair of a Lara or the muscularity of Matt Hayden- produced numbers that the media dubbed “Bradmanesque!”
To this day, no Australian batsman whether a grafter like a Steve Waugh or the sartorial prince like Mark Waugh managed in excess of 700 runs in an Ashes contest. Smith managed far more weighing low on panache but measuring high in substance.
Upon the completion of those 4 Ashes Tests, as an Australian, you may have desired wearing a baggy green to understand the depth of emotion it carries for a national cricketer. You could be pardoned for being overimaginative it if you did think that had Bradman been there, he would’ve proudly patted Steve Deveroux Smith’s back with immense pride.
774 runs, 3 fifties, as many hundreds, a strike rate of 65! And we weren’t talking about the most aesthetically pleasing cricketer, rather someone who discards the “panache” making space for “performance.”
And then, 2 fifties (against Pakistan) and 254 runs (vs NZ and Pak in Tests) later, here was Steve Smith in Virat Kohli-land. In a series which clearly didn’t go his team’s way, despite Australia fielding a batting order that had not one but two brute batsmen up top in Warner and Finch, it was neither who stood out.
Funnily, it was Smith who’d end with more runs, albeit possessing much less power when compared to his compatriots or opponents, Rohit Sharma included.
In front of the star-power that only a keenly-awaited series like Australia and India can bring, in an age spurred by PowerPlays, DRS reviews, Smith outscored not only Warner and Finch, but the ‘Hitman,’ and the world’s much-loved ‘modern-great’ Kohli.
That he did so in Kohli’s own backyard was perhaps subdued by Australia faltering in the bowling department in the last 2 games, despite having gotten off to a flier at Mumbai.
We remembered the blistering ton of Rohit Sharma at Bangalore, in the series decider. That another came in a winning cause against the same side Rohit had hounded in 2013 made India’s win all the more exemplary and Smith, who made 131 (12 more than Sharma) evaded the media space it deserved.
That Smith’s 229 runs vis-a-via Sharma’s 171 and Kohli’s aggregate of 183 were paid as less attention to as the Aussie going past 4000 ODI runs (in this series) was both strangely painted in a one-sided narrative and perhaps turned a blind eye to by the very fan who writes on Social Media that “Cricket should win, over and above batsmen or teams!”
It then also raised a question.
Do we treat individual impact slightly unfairly in front of the team chorus siding with the victorious?
Surely, Smith’s scored more in other series and scored more hundreds on an away-tour. But that we almost nearly forgot that all it took him to compile 229 runs were 2 games not 3 (did not bat at Mumbai), unlike Rohit, Virat, Finch or Warner is telling of his exemplary and rather unsung India tour.
That Smith would’ve irked the passionate Indian fan who found his proclivity to put the ball to the on-side (facing an in-form Shami) with disdainful ease rather disturbing was almost as certain as the boundary scored off a full-toss.
Surely, at 30, Smith is domineering. But that he also has a long way to go is also clear. But that- despite featuring in half the ODIs as Kohli, having faced nearly 8,000 fewer deliveries as his famous Indian rival- Smith is still considered a great threat is perhaps a testimony to his talent.
It’s an indication of the impact he brings to the crease; the difference he adds every now and again through single-mindedness. It’s the touch he adds to a team that often seems hollow in his absence and suddenly powerful, with the mention of a rather sedate name in the line-up: Steve Smith!
Remember it’s not a name that is grandiose like a Virat. Yet, it has a body of work against it that only a man whose craft can’t be emulated can offer.
Make no mistake! Smith can get out to the lousiest of shots. Picture playing-on to the stumps off Kuldeep on way to his 98 at Rajkot. But don’t forget who got Australia back into the game when in two back to back games, they lost the top order inside 15 overs!
Steve Smith is not the most elegant on-drive on a gorgeous sun-kissed evening with a strong breeze. He’s the force that soldiers on, accompanied often with an odd muscle twitch, slightly abrupt muscle-flexing and gentle hopping on the pitch and the most unusual leaves.
Not everything is about class. It’s often about un-belonging; hence belonging to a league of one’s own.