Sun | Feb 23, 2020

Oral Tracey | Another statistical illusion

Published:Tuesday | January 2, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Australian cricket captain and top-order batsman Steve Smith is, without a modicum of doubt, the top batsman in Test cricket today. The 28-year-old has been the epitome of consistency during his seven-year international career, compiling one of the most impressive scoring records in recent Test cricket history.

In a mere 60 Test matches, Smith has scored 5,974 runs, including 23 centuries and 22 half-centuries, at a superb average of 63.55. Despite being leaps and bounds ahead of all his contemporaries in this format of the game, it is still highly premature to be mentioning Steve Smith's name in the same sentence with the legendary Australian Sir Donald Bradman, as is being done by some pundits.

If Steve Smith's runs-scoring exploits in Test cricket continue along the same trajectory for the next four or five years, and all things hypothetically remain equal, Smith could conceivably get to 130 Test matches. At the current rate, this could see him compiling near 15,000 Test runs with possibly over 50 Test centuries at a likely 60-plus average.

How great would Steve Smith then be? Would he then be the greatest batsman of the modern era, as his numbers would most definitely suggest? Would he then surpass the likes of Ricky Ponting, who amassed 13,378 runs, including 41 centuries at an average of 51.85 in his 168 Test matches? Would Steve Smith then be greater than Brian Lara, who, in 131 Tests, compiled 11,953 runs at an average of 52.88 with 34 Test centuries? Could Smith credibly be deemed comparable or even greater than Sachin Tendulkar, who, in 200 tests, scored 15,921 runs, including 51 centuries at an average of 53.78?




If a young cricket researcher, 50 or 100 years from now, looks at Steve Smith's numbers and concludes that this man must be numbered among the top two or three greatest batsman of his era, would that young researcher be correct in his analysis? HELL NO! The emerging case of the current Australian captain is yet another case of cricket statistics going mad.

Smith is clearly a competent accumulator of runs, with his main attributes being his powers of concentration and his perfect Test match temperament. He is, indeed, a rare breed with an ultra-simplistic approach to batting, where he simply blocks the good deliveries and unspectacularly gets the bad ones away.

Smith is not as great or as brilliant as his numbers suggest. Indeed, except for his powers of concentration, the use of the word 'brilliant' would be a gross exaggeration of the level of Smith's batting. True greatness in batting is more than merely compiling runs. Intangible factors such as style and appeal, the quality of his shots - not to mention relative quality of opposing teams, and especially opposing bowlers - must factor significantly into ascribing true batting greatness.

Certainly in terms of consistency and productivity, Smith would have ticked all the boxes, but in terms of style and appeal, Smith plays with an unorthodox and boring simplicity, which puts him in a unique category of runs accumulators with the likes of West Indian Shivnarine Chanderpaul, distinguished in their productivity, but limited by their style.

For sure, the runs are on the board, but of Steve Smith's 23 Test centuries, which one stands out as a jaw-dropping 'WOW' innings? They have all been good fighting, and, no doubt, valuable innings, but runs devoid of style are merely good innings. Runs scored in style and flair, such as Brian Lara's 277 in Sydney in 1993, or his 153 not out also against Australia at Kensington Oval in Barbados in 1999, are great innings that left indelible marks on all who witnessed them.

Bating is an art, a creative form of expression. Smith's batting, while a good representation of character and tenacity, is generally devoid of creative expression. The batting of the likes of Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting were like listening to finely tuned musical instruments in concert, having the captivated audience in awe of the sweet melodies of bat meeting ball. Steve Smith's batting is a work in progress - an instrument that needs a lot of fine-tuning. And all this anxious early and exaggerated talk about his greatness is a function of statistical illusion.