'We're watching Bradman here': Smith levels up yet again

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December 16, 2017 07:20:42

“We’re watching Bradman here.”

There it was. None of the usual caveats. No appending of ‘esque’. No ‘best since’ modifiers. Nothing to hide behind.

Watching Bradman, Donald George. It’s an idea that has been creeping up, harder to resist as Steven Peter Devereux Smith proceeds to pile up runs.

As Jim Maxwell watched the latter at the WACA, dominating the second day of the third Ashes Test, invoking the former no longer seemed absurd.

There’s been a recent trend to note the technical similarities as well as the numerical. The claw grip, dominated by bottom glove. The blade from gully in a circular sweep. The primacy of hand-eye and bat speed over positioning and orthodoxy.

Fundamentally, the doing of things differently, ignoring the established method.

“It reminds me of some film taken by Clarrie Grimmett, the great leg-spinner, on the Ashes tours in 1930 and 1934,” said Maxwell on ABC Grandstand.

“In a few frames you can see Bradman. It’s an extraordinary cameo picture. The way Bradman threads the field, just using his wrists.

“Not heaving the ball around the place. Using his ability to judge the length. Particularly on the pull shot. Didn’t he judge the length. Just back and — bang. I’m telling you, he’s like Don Bradman.”

The final line referred back to Smith, who was indeed splitting the field in exactly the manner described. Using subtle angles to direct his shots exactly where he wanted.

And the wrists. It was a flick through midwicket that had Maxwell rhapsodising. Most of Smith’s work, though, had been done on the other side, driving through mid-off and cover.

All this was before he even reached 50. He finished the day unbeaten on 92. Throughout, he looked supreme. On another level to anyone else in the series.

So while there are formalities to be gone through on day three, why don’t I save us the trouble of repeating things?

Let’s just say that, in the first innings of the Perth Test, Smith made his 22nd Test century. Which means a career rate of a hundred every 2.68 games, and a live batting average of 61.5.

I don’t feel like I’m taking a risk by stating this ahead of time. That’s how well he’s going. I could have written the above paragraph when he was on nought and still have felt confident.

Indeed, there was a sense of inevitability. When he came out to bat, the thought popped up that he was 2 to 1 on for a hundred here. Then I realised that statistically he just about was.

More than the numbers, though, was a confidence in manner, a strong stride. Walking out to a pitch that was going to suit him, after a couple that have demanded more caution.

Bounce, pace, a lack of deviation. Like a glass of Fernet: tough if it’s unfamiliar, delicious if you’re into it. The Australian captain likes potency.

He started immediately. Third ball from Craig Overton, who had taken the two wickets to bring Smith to the crease. Bit of seam, decent pace, the principal threat.

Or not. Smith slammed his third ball through cover for four.

The posh side became Smith’s playground. Where cliches about wristy batsmen indicate leg-side play, Smith used the method through the off.

Nine of his 13 shots to the fence went that side of the wicket. His second boundary was outrageously punched off the back foot, short of a length but driven back down the ground.

Then every cover drive had him reaching seemingly halfway, only for a final flick of the wrists to whip the bat outward through the line.

The timing was supernatural, and the scorers were writing as soon as they saw him move.

It couldn’t have been more different to four years ago, when Smith announced himself with a hundred that sealed the Ashes that time around. That knock was back foot forever, all hooks and pulls through the bolshie side.

Adaptability has been his watchword in the years since, and is the thing that still sets him apart from his Fab Four contemporaries.

This innings was Cheat Mode stuff. Buckfast, limitless ammo. Smith played it cool when he felt like it, went for the ball when he wanted. His strike rate purred along at 75 where most were 40 to 60.

Impressions were backed up by the analysts: CricViz tracked him as attacking 30 per cent of the balls he faced, more than any specialist batsman in the match.

Of his 122 balls, he missed one, and that down the leg side. Even his handful of edges weren’t dangerous, scoring down and through the cordon rather than bringing it into play.

Or finding its gaps at pace when he wanted, as he did with the horizontal bat.

“That was almost the Bradman late cut, if Jim was still on,” said Simon Katich later in the day of one especially fine specimen. “That’s how it used to go, isn’t it, the fielders all clapping as the ball went past them?”

“They just look clueless as to how they’re going to get him out. There are times when you’re watching someone playing a level above.

“You see it sometimes with a player going back to state cricket, and they’re too good for it. He’s like that, but in a Test match.”

There’s someone else they used to say that about.

Before the ABC switchboard lights up with complaints of sacrilege, of course there’s still a gulf. Smith’s hundreds have to become doubles for a start.

And yet the similarities accrue, as games go by. We know we’re not quite watching Bradman. But on this day, Jim Maxwell was right. It actually felt like we might have been.

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