Steve Smith shows a batsman can become great without following game's manual
Many years ago, a despondent Pravin Amre had turned up at Sunil Gavaskar’s office at Nirlon. The middle-order batsman from Mumbai, who struggled to get into his state team in the Ranji Trophy and moved to Railways, had been scoring tons of runs in domestic cricket. But those runs weren’t taking him to the Indian team, because the selectors had been sceptical about Amre’s technique.
In the early 1990s, cricket, especially Bombay cricket, still thrived on orthodoxy. Amre’s backlift, elbow position and his footwork against fast bowling weren’t the purists’ delight. In his early twenties then, the right-hander decided to seek help from the master. Grapevine has it that Amre didn’t even have the courage to seek an appointment with Gavaskar. He went to the Nirlon, filled the visitors’ slip and waited for his turn. The former India captain ushered him in after he spotted the youngster. Gavaskar’s advice to Amre was simple—batting is about scoring runs and the technique which helps a player do that is the perfect technique. There are no hard and fast rules. A reinvigorated Amre scored a century on his Test debut in South Africa against Allan Donald and company. That Amre failed to fulfil his early promise in the international arena was a different story. But he was a case in point, with regards to technique’s overrating in cricket. In contemporary cricket, Steve Smith is the biggest example that a batsman can keep the game’s John Nesfield— read, the MCC Coaching Manual —at arm’s length and still become an all-time great. Recently, during an informal conversation, a former India Test opener was analysing Smith’s coaching manual-defying batting. “His bat comes down from gully. He has an exaggerated trigger movement and his leaves outside the off stump at times look funny. But at the point of meeting the ball, his head is perfectly still and the bat completely perpendicular unless he is playing a horizontal shot.”
For a budding cricketer, it’s rather advisable to follow Virat Kohli, who is very copybook even when he goes on the attack, rather than the ex-Australia captain. A comparison between the two modern-day greats would be puerile, for you don’t compare the greats. Smith at the moment is going through a golden run. The ongoing Ashes series in England, in fact, has become his Ashes. Smith’s consistency in the series has helped him become the world’s best Test batsman in the ICC rankings, overtaking the India captain.
Talking about the purple patch, this is Bradmanesque… In four Tests and six innings so far, Smith has scored 751 runs including two hundreds and a double century. He is going at an average of 125-plus. In almost every innings, he played a lone ranger. He missed the Headingley Test due to concussion after being hit on the neck by a vicious Jofra Archer bouncer. England won at Headingley, although it was down to Ben Stokes’s fourth innings heroics. Smith was back with a bang at Old Trafford, hammering a double hundred and ensuring that Australia would retain the Ashes in England for the first time since 2001. This was Smith’s first Test series since the Sandpaper-gate in Cape Town in March last year. Ball-tampering was nothing new in cricket. But a Cameron Bancroft confession followed by then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s comment —“a shocking disappointment”—had brought ignominy to Smith, Bancroft and David Warner. The suspension was basically incidental. Smith had to make a statement in the Ashes. And it felt like the only way England could regain the urn was ‘over his dead body’. Such has been his impact that even the boo-boys are now standing and applauding. The Ashes has witnessed Smith’s redemption. England captain Joe Root, a champion batsman in his own right, had no qualms about admitting Smith’s mastery. “Look at the Test matches and there have been times when one guy has made a difference and that has probably cost us the urn this time around,” Root had said after his team lost at Old Trafford. “Steve Smith has been hard work to get out. Ultimately, he was the difference (in) this Test match,” he added.
The great batsman has won over his rivals and adversaries. Only Steve Harmison remains a naysayer. “I don’t think you can forgive him (Smith). When you’re known as a cheat – and he is, I’m not going to sugar-coat it, the three guys cheated – that’s on your CV,” the former England fast bowler told talkSPORT. Harmison was seemingly oblivious to the fact that in 1994 against South Africa at Lord’s, TV pictures appeared to have caught a certain Mike Atherton applying dirt to the ball. Then England skipper was subsequently fined £2,000 by match referee Peter Burge. Harmison also had forgotten that in 1977 at Madras, an England fast bowler answering to the name of John Lever allegedly rubbed Vaseline onto the ball. Yes, the Sandpaper-gate is a blot on Smith’s career, but that doesn’t lower his greatness as a batsman.