Ashes 2019: Just how good is Steve Smith?

Adrian Meredith tells us just how bloody good Steve Smith is.

With Steve Smith scoring an incredible 211 in the ongoing 4th Ashes test at Old Trafford, I thought it was a good time to fairly analyse just how good he is.

Here are some quick stats:

  • His test average of 64.65 is the second-highest of all test players, behind the incomparable Don Bradman’s 99.94.
  • He is currently ranked 1st in tests, 1 1/2 tests after his year-long ban ended.
  • His recent 211 was scored after missing the previous 1 1/2 tests due to concussion.
  • He has scored 144, 142, 92 and 211 in his first 4 test innings since his year-long ban ended.
  • His test average in the current Ashes series is 147.25.
  • He is the highest run-scorer in the series, by a margin of 262 runs, in spite of missing 1 1/2 tests.
  • His series average of 147.25 is 65.50 higher than the second best, Ben Stokes.
  • The second-best batsman of the test series, Ben Stokes, has been offered a knighthood and is in consideration for New Zealander of the year, in spite of playing for England, and Stokes is a distance behind Smith.
  • Only 4 batsmen in the series average more than 30 (Labuschagne’s 70.00 and Burns’s 42.83 the other two besides Smith and Stokes). Next best after Burns is 29.83 for Travis Head.

I heard about Steve Smith when he made his state debut in 2008, two years before he made his international debut in 2010, as being an outstanding up-and-coming all-rounder, alongside fellow New South Welshman Steve O’Keefe. Both had fantastic starts to their state careers, and at one point Smith had Jacques Kallis-like first class stats, averaging 50 with the bat and 30 with the ball. The problem was that the selectors weren’t sure which one was better. They were both spin bowlers. Luckily for Smith, Shane Warne was a legspin bowler and he was influential so Smith, a fellow legspinner, got the nod and the rest is history.

Well, not quite. When Smith first played for Australia in a T20I against Pakistan on 5 February 2010, he did so as a bowler. He didn’t want to play as a bowler, as he was an all-rounder, but there was no room for yet another all-rounder, so he was forced to play as a bowler. Shane Warne was convinced that Smith could become the next great legspin bowler, filling the gap that Warne himself left.

He batted at number eight, coming in with Australia precariously placed at 6/81 off 11.5 overs, and he scored eight off eight balls as Australia were all out for a below-par 127 with more than an over to spare. Happily, though, Australia won, and Smith’s two wickets, of Fawad Alam and Naved-ul-Hasan, Pakistan’s number seven and eight, were useful. His 2/34 was a bit expensive but he did enough to keep his spot, as he helped Australia to win.

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I remember at the time thinking that it was strange that he was being used as a specialist bowler when he was an all-rounder. All-rounders are all-rounders, and specialist bowlers are a different beast. Number 8 was too low for him. Two weeks later, on 19 February 2010, he made his ODI debut, this time against the West Indies, and was again scheduled to come in at number 8 but this time he didn’t bat. He again took 2 expensive wickets with the ball, of wicket keeper Ramdin and number 11 Rampaul as he conceded 78 runs off his 9.5 overs, which was way too expensive for that level.

It was clear that he was struggling with his bowling and to even the most casual observer it was clear that playing him purely as a bowler was a bad idea. He should be given a chance to show that he could bat. At least bat at six.

On test debut on 13 July 2010 against Pakistan, he again batted at number eight, scoring just one run, and didn’t bowl in the first innings. In the second innings he batted one spot lower at nine after Mitchell Johnson went in as nightwatchman and he scored just 12. Incredibly, his current captain Tim Paine batted ahead of him! He finally bowled in the 4th innings and had his first truly impressive effort, taking 3/51 as Australia won by 150 runs, including the wicket of opener Imran Farhat, wicket keeper Kamran Akmal and tailender Umar Gul. Finally, at last, he had arrived.

With the home Ashes looming, Steve Smith was a controversial selection. He didn’t play the first two tests but in the third test he played as, according to reports, “a gap between the wickets”. In my own report at the time I described his role as effectively “cheerleader”. He played in the 3rd, 4th and 5th tests to finish the Ashes campaign, which Australia lost at home to lose the Ashes, initiating the Argus Review.

I had written at the time that Australia were doomed to fail due to their poor preparations for that Ashes series, which included going over to India for an ODI series and then coming back to Australia to play some T20Is against Sri Lanka, all while England were preparing for a month before the first test. We also named a squad of 17, and then had players fight it out with the final games. I predicted an Australian loss and Australia did exactly as I predicted.

It was an indictment on Australian cricket that they had lost the series, which was effectively about chasing money more than trying to win. I, along with many other Australian cricket fans, felt cheated. Why did we let England have so much preparation when we didn’t have any of our own?

Steve Smith, unfairly, was punished for his role, in spite of scoring 54 not out in the fifth and final test of the series. He didn’t take any wickets and was seen to be a poor choice.

I was one of Smith’s greatest supporters, as I had seen him play, and knew his state-level success. Like so many players before him, the problem was that he was mismanaged. It was like when we tried to make Shane Watson an opener, or try to make Mitchell Marsh a batsman, or try to make James Faulkner an ODI player. Smith was an all-rounder yet he was being treated as a bowler. If anything, he was a batting all-rounder.

While Smith was in the wilderness, he reinvented himself. He worked on his batting and stopped bowling entirely. He scored runs galore at state level and was completely ignored by the selectors for two years in spite of it. Finally, in 2013, in India, in a series we were never going to win, he made his return.

In his first innings for more than two years, on 14 March 2013, he scored 92. Australia lost the test but it was close, India having to chase a difficult target in the 4th innings and only winning by six wickets, which, in India, is close.

It meant that, isolating his last two innings, he had an average of 146. It was selective statistics, but statistics just the same. He scored 54 not out then 92.

Few people recognised the fight he showed in India, and he was still being widely criticised in the media as being an example of someone who shouldn’t be in the test team. Many called him a bits and pieces all-rounder, or a spin-bowler who was stupidly batting in the top 6. Many said that his place in the team was evidence that our selectors had learned nothing since the terrible 2010/11 Ashes series.

But then he played in the away Ashes of 2013, which Australia lost 0-3, but it was close. Steve Smith was one of Australia’s best batsmen. Then in the home Ashes which followed immediately afterwards, which Australia won 5-0, he was the absolute best.

Across the two Ashes series, he scored three centuries, the first three he had ever scored. He added a 53 and an 89, three centuries and second half-centuries in 10 tests.

People were now starting to see him as a legitimate player in the Australian team, a reputation that was all the stronger when he went to South Africa and scored his 4th century, his 2nd in a row, and his third in fourth tests.

But it wasn’t until India came to Australia at the end of 2014/beginning of 2015 that he really came good, when he scored 4 first-innings centuries in a row. He was then suddenly regarded as one of the best in the world, a reputation improved when he scored 199 in Jamaica and then bettered that with 215 at Lord’s, each innings improving on his highest ever test scores, meaning he now had six centuries in eight tests.

From there, he kept getting better, as his test batting average, once as low as 20, had climbed into the 30s, 40s, 50s, and, incredibly, 60s. In the 2017/18 Ashes, at home in Australia, he added three centuries in five tests, including his second double-century of 239.

A rare poor showing in South Africa was halted by his year-long ban, and then he came good immediately upon his return, away in England, when England were widely expected to win easily.

But it’s about more than just scores. To be able to win when you aren’t supposed to and for it to be all down to him is the mark of a champion, and he did it many times.

In the first test, Australia were dead and buried when he came in and gave Australia some hope, then in the second innings he took Australia from 90 runs behind on the first innings to setting a target that England could not chase. It was one of the best batting performances ever produced.

Then he followed it up with a 92 in the second test, even batting through a concussion.

Had he not been concussed, undoubtedly Australia would have won the 3rd test easily but his absence meant that Ben Stokes was able to do something amazing and it result in victory rather than heartache.

Now, as we move forward to the 4th test, he has scored a lazy 211, the only centurion in the test, yet it is a double. Nobody else even came close to getting a century – the next highest was 67, one-third his score.

Since the retirements of Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting, only one batsman comes close to Steve Smith, and that is Virat Kohli. Smith has outranked him consistently in tests, and his average is much greater, but that is mainly due to Kohli’s comparatively poor start to his test career, and longer time playing test cricket.

Perhaps, had Australia persisted with Smith instead of dumping him for two years, he would not have worked as hard as he did, and we’d still be trying to play him as a bowler or, at most, as an all-rounder, and he would never become who he is now.

The intestinal fortitude he showed to come back this hard after missing a test through concussion, one which Australia cruelly lost in his absence, in the closest of scenarios, is huge. To do as well as he did after he was subjected to the worst-ever ban for someone who didn’t break any cricketing law, is incredible. David Warner, who suffered the same unfair fate, has come back with six low scores out of seven, the one exception being 61. Smith has a lowest score of 92 and three centuries besides in his four innings. The difference between Australia’s two best batsmen, in near identical situations, is incredible.

Smith didn’t even have a very good World Cup, yet David Warner did. Yet, come the tests and Smith is in another world.

Why Smith does so much worse in ODIs and especially T20Is is the mystery. Why he is so incredible in tests is obvious to see.

He works harder than anyone in cricket. This didn’t come easy for him. He was made to work hard for what he got, and he has reaped the rewards.

Better than Bradman? No. Best since Bradman? Maybe. At least if he keeps going like this.

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