By Alison Mitchell
It was after the Sydney Test of 12 months ago that Steve Smith first permitted himself to pause and reflect.
He had just completed his 50th Test match, and it was the team doctor at the time, Peter Brukner, who informed the Australian captain that he was now one of only four players to have an average of 60 after playing 50 Tests (Don Bradman, Herbert Sutcliffe and Jack Hobbs being the others).
Given his idiosyncrasies and twitchy movements at the crease, it must have taken quite some effort for Smith to stand still for a moment and take in what he had achieved. His conclusion? That it would be “nice to get up there” with those greats of the games.
One year on, that average stood at 63.55 leading into the traditional New Year Test at the SCG. As captain, and under the spotlight of an Ashes series, Smith has added two centuries and a double hundred to his extraordinary career tally. By the end of the Sydney Test he may be close to the all-time highest rating tally ever reached by a batsman – Bradman’s 961 points achieved in February 1948.
As impressive as any of his feats though has been his ability to adapt. He has scored his slowest and second slowest Test hundreds during this series – one a match-winning century and the other a match-saving one – and he has talked about adapting mid-innings to the way the England bowlers have bowled to him.
And boy, the bowlers have tried a lot of things. Not even a blow on the hand in the nets could stop Smith – he simply adjusted his grip on the bat. He has been adapting ever since the Perth Test of 2013 when he first stepped across his stumps and found that, in his words, “something clicked”.
Watching Smith is like watching a masterpiece being painted in front of your eyes; a dab of paint here, a flick there, and a flourish of brushstroke when additional depth is required. One cannot be quite sure what the next layer will bring but it is absorbing, due in no small part to the uniqueness of style.
Masterpieces usually give a nod to tradition whilst offering something that hasn’t been seen before. Smith’s art of batting is done his own way. Bradman had his water tank, stump and golf ball; Smith’s eye for angles and deftness of hand was honed by repeatedly striking a cricket ball attached to the end of a rope, which was suspended from the rafters of the garage at home. He would strike the ball then anticipate the angle that the ball would come off the roof, striking it repeatedly and leaving a good few ‘cherries’ in the plasterboard along the way.
As Smith became older and stronger, those red marks eventually gave way to holes. The garage roof has since been reinforced with plywood – something many an opposition captain must wish they could do with their fields when Smith is batting.
It was absorbing, but in a different way, watching Alastair Cook rediscover his touch in Melbourne to record the highest Test score ever made by a visiting batsman at the MCG.
Cook, at 33, is nearing completion as a masterpiece. He has played 151 Test matches and scored nearly 12,000 Test runs with powers of concentration, physical fitness and mental resilience extending beyond all other modern cricketers.
He may well feel sorry for the exquisite Brian Lara at having a batsman who has made a lot of his runs in a less-than-pretty fashion overtake him in the list of all-time run-scorers, but as Cook delved into the depths of his reserves once more to compile the fifth double century of his career, batting more than ten hours in the process, it too was worth a lengthy pause to savour the moment of watching a great at work in front of your eyes.
What to do with the MCG pitch?
Some pitches are such good batting tracks that batters can often be heard
to say that they would like to roll it up and take it around the world with them. After the fourth Test reached its predictable conclusion in Melbourne, I put this to Smith and asked him what he might like to do with that particular pitch. He smiled wryly (thoughts of “burn it” possibly going through his head) before politely suggesting that he wasn’t sure that he would want to roll that one up and take it with him.
Mitchell Marsh then apologised down the camera lens to fans, for the lack of entertainment offered. Indeed the ICC’s subsequent rating of the pitch as ‘poor’ confirmed the fact that there was nothing to encourage run-scoring, nor any assistance to the bowlers to take wickets.
An Australian pitch has never received such a dismal rating before. Mitigating factors at the MCG included the absence of usual curator David Sandurski, who had already moved to his job in Brisbane before his replacement had arrived from the WACA. It meant that the responsibility of pitch preparation fell to the arena operations manager – something that should never be allowed to happen in the future.
New Year Honours highlight impact of 2017
New Year Honours received by members of the England Women’s team and coaching staff demonstrates the impact that the 2017 World Cup has had. Yes, England have enjoyed more successful years in the past, such as 2009 when they won both the 50 and 20-over World Cups, yet in one high profile five-week period that culminated in a pulsating, glorious and victorious sold-out final at Lord’s, the team’s single achievement touched more people than had ever been possible before.
Given the sport’s previous struggle to build and sustain audiences, one of the most astounding stats from the World Cup was that more people tuned in to watch England beat India in the final than the average audience for a Premier League match in the 2016/17 season. Of course, it was the first time that every match of a Women’s World Cup had been streamed live, meaning audiences had never had the opportunity to build before. Viewers were provided with thrilling entertainment coupled with high skill.
OBEs have now gone to captain Heather Knight and coach Mark Robinson, with MBEs going to the player of the match in the final, Anya Shrubsole, and player of the tournament Tammy Beaumont. The ECB’s director of women’s cricket Clare Connor becomes a CBE.
After Knight tweeted her delight, she followed up by saying: “Would have loved to see the whole team recognised, but chuffed all the same.”
England’s T20 World Cup winning captain Paul Collingwood was famously awarded the MBE after playing in just the final Test of the 2005 Ashes series and scoring 17 runs in two innings. The impact of the Women’s World Cup triumph wasn’t lost on Collingwood though, with Paul tweeting after they won in July: “I’ve been trying for years and today finally my daughters want to play cricket! Thank you @englandcricket women. Inspirational.”