Smith makes 211 in his least convincing innings of the series

Dave Tickner
Steve Smith Ashes Old Trafford Australia England PA

Just another normal Steve Smith innings then. He got a hundred because of course he did. He generally does. He went on to get a double-hundred because he quite often does that as well. But really, the most striking thing about this 211 was the fact it was his worst innings of the series.

There were signs of if not quite weakness then at least an occasional fallibility that bordered on the human, and without the caveat of facing one of the all-time great spells of fast bowling as he had at Lord’s.

He edged the first ball of the day short of slip and played and missed at the second. It already felt like more errors than he’d made at any stage on Wednesday. Shortly after he offered a tough caught-and-bowled chance to Jofra Archer. Normal service was soon resumed, but while you certainly didn’t ever expect him to get out after that there was never quite the sure and certain knowledge that he definitely wouldn’t get out.

There was the occasional play and miss. The odd rash shot. He even did manage to get out, caught at slip off Jack Leach only for replays to confirm that the left-arm spinner had overstepped for only the 14th time in his first-class career.

Among these apparently genuine misjudgements from Smith were the usual smatterings of the not-actually-misjudgements. The oohs and aahs around the ground as another ball is clipped through square-leg, commentators repeating the mantra “If he’d missed that he’d have been absolutely plumb” for the 200th time in the day.

None of this is to criticise. Quite the opposite. Smith has normalised his insane Jedi genius to the extent that one of the finest double-centuries you will ever see in Test cricket is not his best innings of the series, or really anywhere close to it.

Statistically and objectively, we are watching the best Test batsman since Bradman. That Smith remains so very far behind Bradman really boggles the mind. Watching Smith bat and trying to comprehend of someone half as good again is simply impossible.

Smith’s Test average now stands at an eye-popping 64.64. Nobody other than those two has 5000 or more Test runs at an average above 60. When Smith reaches 7000 – which is 212 runs and therefore roughly one innings away at present speed and course – he will break new statistical ground. There will be nobody in the history of the game to have scored more runs at a better average.

But the various numbers and stats – and there are so, so many – that highlight how rarefied the air he now breathes is are all tremendous fun but, really, meaningless. Nothing in the numbers prepares you for the experience of watching him at work. It is just the most extraordinary thing. His cover-drive, played with no foot movement and with all the weight on the back foot, defies every convention of the stroke. Plenty have played it successfully without much footwork, but your Nassers and your Atherses are always quick to point out how with those batsmen the weight still transferred forward into the shot. Not with Smith. And yet he nails it time and time again.

Steve Smith hundred Ashes Old Trafford PA

More striking still is the shot we’re dubbing the dive-drive in which he throws hands, head and eventually his whole body at balls full and wide of the off stump. He got to his 50 with one yesterday and gave it another crack today. That this has become a trademark shot of the second best batsman ever to try this daft game is nothing short of wonderful.

The Jedi leaves and blocks are tremendous, of course, but the real mark of Smith’s genius comes when he hits seamers through mid-on. It may be the least weird shot he plays but it’s the one that best demonstrates what makes him so good – beyond the patience, concentration and desire required to bat for so very long so very often. Ignore everything else that goes on with Smith’s pre-delivery routine and trigger movements and just watch the flow of the bat for any of the many shots he pinged back past an increasingly vexed Stuart Broad. The presentation of the bat is textbook, the backswing may be off towards gully somewhere but the downswing is pendulum perfect.

So how do you get him out? His supposed weakness against left-arm spin is wildly overplayed, a straw desperately clutched in the absence of any others, but it was Leach who troubled him most today. Smith’s main weakness in fact appears to be reverse-sweeping Joe Root once he’s got past 200, having fallen in such a fashion for the second time. As a tactic, it’s only 60 or 70 runs worse than trying to exploit the vulnerability he showed in the 140s at Edgbaston.

But there does seem to be no reliable way of getting him out. If he told you he’d made the few mistakes he did make today on purpose to keep himself interested, you’d believe him. He probably knew Leach had overstepped as well. He is a freak. Even his boundaries occasionally have an apologetic air to them, as if he’s almost a bit embarrassed about how easy it all is but he just loves batting so much and sadly scoring boundaries is an occupational hazard.

One way or another, he now appears certain to prove the difference between two flawed sides that nevertheless contain some high-quality components. Even if England somehow escape Manchester with a draw – they have 19 wickets and most of the next three days to survive if they’re to do so – they will still need to win at The Oval. And that means coming up with a way of dismissing Smith, ideally before he’s got to 140 never mind 211.

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