Very, is the obvious answer to the question in the title and it’s tempting to leave the debate there. But that wouldn’t be overly interesting as a blog post. The word ‘great’ gets bandied about with flippant regularity and the question of who is the greatest of our times is likely to be dictated by where you’re from: Delhi (or anywhere else in India) and you’ll say Virat Kohli; Australia and you’ll say Steve Smith.
Of course, we’re lucky to be around at a time of such two fine protagonists. In football we have Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, in tennis we have Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, in athletics we’ve had Usain Bolt, in golf we’ve had Tiger Woods, in NFL we have Tom Brady, in snooker we have Ronnie O’Sullivan and in darts we’ve had Phil Taylor – it has been a good period to be a sports fan and all of these names have transcended their sports to become household names but, more pertinently, to be included in the lists of the very best their disciplines have ever witnessed, if not the best.
I’ve outlined my views on Virat Kohli before, here, as he is the greatest ODI batsman to have ever played the game. His numbers are ridiculous and his output almost ceaseless. The very best players have an ability to arrive at the crease, go about their business for 45mins without being noticed before you glance at the scorecard and realise that they’re already in the 30s, set and poised to produce yet another match-defining innings.
Steve Smith has that knack, too, although his ODI record is incomparable to Kohli’s, as is everyone else’s. Where Smith stands out is with his output in Test cricket. Amongst his contemporaries, he is peerless.
The issue with assessing the output in Test cricket of any batsman is the existence of Don Bradman’s career. To compare to him is like comparing silver to gold. 99.94 is a number familiar to every cricket fan and is a career average which seems impossible to surpass in the modern game. Bradman only played games in Australia and England and only had one format to contend with. He wasn’t playing T20s in India nor Test matches in Bangladesh. We’ll simply never know how he would have stacked up playing in such a variety of conditions, but it’s safe to assume that he would have done okay.
Assessing Smith is impossible without mentioning Bradman. When Lawrence Booth wrote in the 2018 edition of Wisden that Smith is “the best Test batsman since Bradman,” it was a point of debate. Now it is a point of fact. Smith’s Test average of 64.56 from 68 Tests is the second best amongst players to have featured in at least 20 Tests. Of players to have played fewer than 70 Tests, only one man has more centuries than Smith’s 26.
So, how far can Smith go? His challenge, really, is maintaining his form. He scored his first Test century at the Oval in 2013 and has added 25 since. He lost a year of his career to suspension (more on that shortly), so is averaging five centuries a year. If he doubles his tally of 68 Tests and remain as prolific as he has been, he will score 52 Test centuries in 136 Tests – that tally is significant since is surpasses Sachin Tendulkar’s tally of 51 centuries. That took Tandulkar 200 Tests and Tendulkar was, obviously, no mug!
So, is it too soon to assert that Smith is second in line to Test cricket’s throne? Given the sheer volume of cricket played these days, it’s highly likely that Smith will get to double his tally of Tests, at least. A lot can change in that time and Smith’s numbers could suffer a significant hit.
His closest contemporary is Kohli, who averages 53.14. That’s 11.42 runs per innings fewer than Smith, which is a significant gap and one that can only be closed with an upturn in Kohli’s form (which is pretty good already!) and a sharp downturn in Smith’s.
Smith, without question, is the finest Test batsman of this era.
Whilst Indian fans can debate who their finest Test exponent is – a battle between Kohli and Tendulkar – you would think that Australians would be quite content to settle on Smith as the best they’ve had, after Bradman. But this isn’t the case.
Ricky Ponting is still the apple of many an Australian’s eye, and it’s not hard to see why. 13,378 runs at an average of 51.85 with 41 centuries spearheaded one of the greatest sides the game has known. Ponting’s career is also finished, making it easier, in many respects, to asses. Smith is still playing and, seemingly, has a lot of cricket ahead of him. This is the danger of making such bold pronouncements so soon, but we should also enjoy Smith for what he is whilst he’s playing. Players like this don’t come along too often and Smith is on course to hugely surpass Ponting’s total runs, centuries and average. And even if he were to retire tomorrow, there’s no questioning that we’ve seen one of the great careers.
And we nearly did see the end of Smith. The year long ban for ball tampering in South Africa in March 2018 has, without doubt, stained Smith’s reputation. He is a cheat and cheating and Australian cricket have long been familiar bedfellows, from Steve Waugh claiming hooky catches, to Justin Langer tipping off the bails and the countless examples of their batsmen not walking. Sin against Australia though, and they are the first to cry foul. That perception of Australian sport meant that the rest of the world delighted in the downfall of Smith, Cameron Bancroft and Dave Warner. They were the ones caught with their hands in the till, despite it being unfeasible that the bowlers, at least, didn’t know about the plans hatched to alter the condition of their tool.
Smith and Warner were the lightning rods for public disdain, paying for the sins of their elders as much as their own. They are now comic figures of fun, forever destined to be booed around the world for their roles in dragging cricket’s good name through the mud. That “cricket’s good name” is, largely, a fallacy, is neither here nor there. Here are two Australians who let the game down and the game will not forget that. And nor should it, to a degree.
But this should not impinge on the views and acceptance of Smith’s standing within cricket’s storied history. A cheat? Yes. One of the best batsmen of all time? Also, yes. It’s possible to hate him for one and admire him for the second. His ability to come back from that lowest of lows, to achieve what he has in the recent Ashes series, also further cements his standing as a batsman.
Cricket, we are constantly told, is in crisis. No one can bat. The bowlers are rubbish. It’s just not as good as it used to be… sound familiar? Yet we have Smith and we have Kohli, the second-best Test and best ODI batsmen of all time. We’ve had stunning individual performances from Kusal Perera, Ben Stokes and Smith himself this year. These should be savoured and enjoyed – the game is alive.
Smith is leading the way for this, and almost every other, era in Test cricket. He averages 60.15 away from home during a period where away wins have been rare. He is one of only six visiting players to have scored three centuries in a series in India. He has scored a century against everyone except Bangladesh, whom he has only faced twice, in Bangladesh.
So, how good is Steve Smith? He’s the second-best Test batsman of all time. There’s Bradman, then there’s Smith. The debate, now, is: who is the third best Test batsman of all time?
By Miles Reucroft