Glenn Maxwell booked an Ashes berth and Steve Smith confirmed he is by far the world’s best Test batsman as Australia made a brilliant start to the crucial third Test in India yesterday.
Maxwell’s mature, polished knock of 82* from 147 balls was the highest score by an Australian Test number six in a long, long time and went some way to clearing up a common misconception about his batting in first-class cricket.
Again and again cricket pundits and fans have unfairly sketched Maxwell as a wild, unthinking slogger against the red ball.
It would take an extraordinary player to bat with such supposed reckless abandon and yet still average 40 in Sheffield Shield cricket during an era in which few specialist batsmen have managed to maintain that mark.
Yes, Maxwell bats with a level of daring and innovation which is foreign to the vast majority of first-class batsmen. But he doesn’t just arrive at the crease and instantly start ramping the quicks and reverse-sweeping the spinners, as his critics would have you believe.
OK, sometimes he does – Maxwell is nothing if not unpredictable. But he has shown many times in the Shield that he can cleverly pick and choose the appropriate times to unleash the full extent of his brazen gifts.
This is exactly what he did yesterday at Ranchi, in an innings which has put Australia in a fine position to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Maxwell shelved his ego for the first 70 minutes of his innings yesterday. He concentrated on rotating the strike as he crawled to 19 from 50 balls at tea time.
In doing so he stalled India’s momentum and familiarised himself with the conditions. After tea he cashed in on this patient start, began to attack and placed pressure on the bowlers. In the final session he scored 63 from just 97 balls.
He managed to score at this rollicking rate without taking too many significant risks. That is the value of a batsman possessed of such dynamism – they have the ability to swiftly take the game away from even the most talented of opposition.
Maxwell’s threat allowed Smith to cruise along in the Victorian’s slipstream for most of the last session. What was most impressive about Maxwell’s knock was that he arrived at the crease with Australia at risk of collapsing for 200 or less on a placid pitch that demanded a first innings score of at least 350.
It seems to have escaped the notice of Maxwell haters that many of his best knocks have come when Victoria have been in trouble.
With a wide range of strokes and an uncluttered mind, he is well equipped to lead counter strikes in the manner of former Australian cricketers Adam Gilchrist and Andrew Symonds or current Proteas star Quentin de Kock.
There will always be times when Maxwell will get out in an ugly or frustrating fashion. That is the price you pay when you pick a player of his ilk.
Australia, though, are forming a solid-enough top five that they can accommodate a daring strokemaker at six. Heaven knows they have got zilch out of that position in the batting order for a good three years now, no matter what kind of cricketer they’ve placed there.
Maxwell’s wonderful innings yesterday has earned him the right to a decent run in the side. If Australia were prepared to persist with Mitchell Marsh for so long, then Maxwell deserves at least another four or five Tests after this one to cement his place.
That means he should be in the starting XI for the first Ashes Test at Brisbane in November.
Meanwhile, his skipper Smith continues to bat at a level rarely seen in Test history.
He too has had plenty of detractors. They moan that his technique is too weird, his footwork too skittish, his mannerisms too manic for him not to be found out sooner rather than later.
Yet Smith pays them no mind and keeps on churning out towers of runs.
This series was supposed to be his litmus test, the battle where we’d really see how good he is. Well, we can now see it in bold letters – Smith is a freak.
In conditions tailor-made for India’s highly-ranked spinners, Smith has been utterly dominant, piling up 289 runs at 72 so far. His opposite number, Virat Kohli, has just 40 runs at 10.
The 27-year-old Aussie is, by a big margin, the best Test batsman on the planet. Smith frequently is bracketed in the so-called ‘Big Four’ with Indian captain Kohli, Kiwi skipper Kane Williamson and England leader Joe Root.
The reality is that Kohli, Williamson and Root each own Test records which pale in comparison to that of Smith. Kohli (49.9) and Williamson (50.4) both have averages which are more than ten runs below Smith’s mark of 60.73.
Root has the second-best average, at 52.80, yet he has scored only 11 tons compared to Smith’s 19 from exactly the same number of Tests (53).
Consider this: If Smith averaged only 39.2 across his next 53 Tests he would still have a career average of 50. These numbers are for us observers to drool over.
Smith is instead focused on doing what just weeks ago seemed impossible – winning a series in India. Today he and Maxwell have an opportunity to all but bat India out of the Test and out of the series.