I don’t know where to start! I’m not talking – yet – about England’s shortcomings in this now decided Ashes series but more about how to compare the very current, already acknowledged as great, Steven Smith as against the late and long established as the greatest ever, Sir Donald Bradman.
The first cricket book I read (over and over again) was Bradman’s The Art of Cricket. It was full of photos of the Don playing every one of his full array of shots and therefore could be described as the definitive coaching manual of its day; surely the world’s greatest-ever batsman would know more about how to do it rather more than say the MCC, whose more official coaching manual would have advocated differing grips and backlifts and have encouraged a very stilted approach to the game.
The Don’s book was a classic and obviously I only read it loosely or I too might have averaged just under a hundred in Tests, though I might have to consider a couple of other factors such as pure talent, practice and a long list of other stuff that puts me way down the list.
So while I humbly doff my cap to the Don and his legend I should very much pay my respects for the second time in three Tests to Steven Smith. I usually try and resist unwarranted hyperbole so if I say that Smith’s 239 at the WACA was Bradmanesque I have to say that the description is deserved.
He himself reckons that the first part of his innings was largely faultless and whatever England tried against him he was just so much in command of himself and the situation that it seemed there was nothing Joe Root and his bowlers could do to upset the batsman’s rhythm, let alone get him out. I’m afraid that’s what can happen with a supreme batsman on a belting track against an attack lacking extra pace.
The Don was not averse to finding the gaps in the field, relentlessly, and one could argue that Smith was even better, in as much as field placings nowadays are far more imaginative (Bodyline excepted) and yet still he was finding gaps and manoeuvring the ball to places, mostly the boundary, where fielders were not. The Don’s average during Bodyline slumped to below 60, the mark above which Smith’s current day extraordinary and unparalleled average sits.
For his opposite number, Joe Root, this is already a chastening experience. For all his talent, he is yet to crack Australia and not being able to lead his team from the front will be bugging him. Hugely.
There are no consolations. Whatever gains his team have made, such as Malan’s maiden Test hundred and the overall impression given by the other “unknowns” in Stoneman, Vince and Overton, England have still come second and by an uncomfortable distance.
With the latest trend towards four-day Tests, I wondered if that might have offered them a bolt hole but the raw facts are that each game has been completed in good time – in fact, if my calculator skills are up to scratch, in almost exactly the same number of overs in each of the three matches: 368.5, 367.3 and 367.3.
Even if you had a minimum of just 100 overs per day over four it would seem that the results could have been the same, though tactics would inevitably have been different and the psychology of England batsmen having to survive for not so long to save a game, akin to having to paddle through shark-infested waters for one day rather than two, might have offered hope of drawing games but not winning.
Australia have been too strong in all key areas and have, like great sides of the past, simply got it right when needed. There was fanciful talk in English pubs of a record-breaking chase in Adelaide and all it took was a few balls on the fifth morning to dash those hopes. England’s 403 in Perth, which should have been more, became no more than a minor obstruction once Smith and Mitch Marsh got together in the middle, and once again the bowlers mopped up.
For Australia’s selectors it has been something of a triumph, too. Forget the headlines before Brisbane that suggested that they might have been on hallucinogenic drugs but look now at the way that those Marsh brothers have stunning hundreds to their names and Tim Paine too has done well most things asked of him.
Their counterparts in England will know that there were no other candidates who could or would have done demonstrably better. There are dark mutterings about why the English system gives us nobody of raw pace (and a modicum of accuracy) to add fire to the attack. There are myriad points to make about first-class matches being shunted into inconvenient parts of what we call summer, about the pitches having no pace, about individual workloads and a development system that allegedly sucks the pace out of bowlers.
In truth neither system throws out a Jeff Thomson or a Dennis Lillee every five years, nor a Fred Trueman (probably not as quick as he said he was anyway!) or a Bob Willis. Fred apparently thrived on bowling six days a week while Bob bowled at half rat power in county cricket and saved his real pace for the Ashes. Same system, different attitudes. Proof that no system is perfect.
Of the current potential quicks Mark Wood is fighting for full fitness, Jamie Overton, the quicker one, is injured, George Garton does not have the accuracy and Tymal Mills has been on a max of four overs a day for years now. Ho hum!
2017-18 International Fixtures
Magellan Ashes Series
Australia Test squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh, Tim Paine (wk), Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird.
England Test squad: Joe Root (c), James Anderson (vc), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Jake Ball, Gary Ballance, Stuart Broad, Alastair Cook, Mason Crane, Tom Curran, Ben Foakes, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ben Stokes, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Chris Woakes.
First Test Australia won by 10 wickets. Scorecard
Second Test Australia won by 120 runs (Day-Night). Scorecard
Third Test Australia won by an innings and 41 runs. Scorecard
Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Tickets
Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Tickets
Gillette ODI Series v England
First ODI MCG, January 14. Tickets
Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Tickets
Third ODI SCG, January 21. Tickets
Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Tickets
Fifth ODI Perth Stadium, January 28. Tickets
Prime Minister's XI
PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Tickets
Gillette T20 trans-Tasman Tri-Series
First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Tickets
Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Tickets
Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Tickets
Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 14
Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16
Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18
Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21