Villain to greatest: A Smith transition
Steve Smith is a wizard, a genius whose parallel will be hard to find in cricket history. Even among the unique batting giants that have adorned the game, he is an exception, someone who is hard to classify and place in a mould. He is charting his own, distinct path that would be almost impossible to emulate.
The game has over the years seen batting skills of breath-taking quality that have captivated the world. If Viv Richards was a colossus who evoked awe and intimidated his opponents, Brian Lara bewitched fans with an elegance and grace that puts him on as high a pedestal that many believe belongs to Richards alone.
Maestro Sunil Gavaskar was perfection personified and an antithesis to Master Blaster Richards in almost every sense of the word. Much like Lara, Gavaskar was short, would go unnoticed in a crowd but played strokes of pristine beauty that drew strength more from rare timing than brute force. Technically, cricket has not seen a sounder player than Gavaskar, whose appetite for runs and crease occupation were phenomenal till Sachin Tendulkar outscored him.
The Tendulkar legacy and his ranking among the overall greats of the game is a contentious subject with Gavaskar and Rahul Dravid, the man whose concentration was as phenomenal as anyone who has played the game, challengers to that title. The long list of batting greats does not stop here, there being a number of others who draw attention with their spectacular skills and run-making ability under duress and pressure situations.
Today we have Virat Kohli, whose steely resolve, self-belief and stroking powers are second to none. He bats with a seriousness and purpose that is backed by a sound understanding of the match situation as well as the bowling strengths of the opponents. He combines in himself the hunger and discipline of Gavaskar and the depth and breadth of Tendulkar’s range to classify as one of the truly batting greats of the game.
Anyone who can push Kohli away from centrestage and dominate the run-making charts, has to be a phenomenon. And Smith is one such specimen, who defies all descriptions that would find a mention in coaching manuals.
He is a restless soul, who can never stay still, a basic foundation for anyone to succeed as a batsman, or so we understood till now. Watching him at the crease while he prepares to face a delivery is a fascinating exercise in itself. His hands gravitate in almost 360 degrees, coming in contact with his helmet to pads, while his feet keep shuffling around. There does not seem to be any stationary moment in Smith’s batting life. Much like Richards did, he plays balls pitched wide of the off stump to the on, with the ease of a master juggler bent on mocking the bowlers and conventional batting techniques.
No part of the ground, no angle of his bat is left unexplored. Be it from the finest of third-man to fine-leg, he can place the ball in any direction, picking gaps and runs at will. His face is as mobile as his body. His eyes are on a rotational trip, ever ready and alert to spot a movement in the field. He seems to be on a fuse, maybe a bit anxious but never nervous. It is a face that belongs to an adolescent soaking in all the wonders of the world and not that of a 31-year-old collecting runs with staggering regularity and ruthless intent. Even a one-year forced hiatus, due to his dalliance with mischief that went against the rules of the game, has not stopped him regaining the No 1 spot from Kohli in the ICC rankings.
His average of over 64 is the second best at the moment in the history of the game, a lead of more than 10 over his next best competitors who are still playing the game. This is a Bradmanesque feat that has no parallel and puts Smith way ahead of all his rivals. The game has seen many characters of different shades, idiosyncrasies and eccentricities but none more amusing, entertaining, bewitching and endearing than Smith, who brings a touch of pantomime to cricket.