The Fab Four label is often used to describe the quartet of Steve Smith, Joe Root, Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli.
Steven Smith has 26 international 100s, an average over 60 and he’s already well on his way to becoming one of Australia’s all-time great cricketers. At 27 we have many more years of Smith to behold, but in the first Test against India he was as good as he has ever been.
Smith’s 109 in Pune was far from perfect, in fact he offered five chances including a fortunate LBW decision – fortunate for Australia, just desserts for India – as Virat Kohli and company continuously burnt through referrals.
Often when we debate the quality of an innings we look at the missed opportunities; “Oh but he was dropped twice”, “he was caught off a no-ball” etc. Sure, it wasn’t the most fluent Smith has been at the crease, but never has he performed when conditions were so unfavourable and so foreign.
Pre-match Shane Warne described Pune’s surface as a “day eight pitch” and most pundits predicted the game to be over within three days. Smith, having arrived at the wicket in the first over of Australia’s second innings, wasn’t fazed.
Instead of retreating into his shell like most Australian bats have done in the subcontinent in recent years, he excelled. He used his feet and he played with soft hands. He worked the ball for ones and twos and then pounced when the bowler erred in line or length.
He flayed the world’s best spinners in their own backyard, and he beat the world’s best team at their own game.
Innings that could rival Smith’s knock in Pune include his 215 against England at Lord’s and his 199 at Sabina Park against the West Indies. These knocks are Smith’s heftiest tallies in Test cricket, however they don’t quite stack up against his 109 this week, at least in terms of quality and importance.
Registering a ton at the home of cricket withstanding, Smith’s innings in the most recent Ashes came on a road. Australia totalled 566 in their first innings before eventually levelling the series.
It was an excellent innings from Smith, no doubt, but comparing the Pune and Lord’s surfaces is like comparing apples and watermelons, let alone oranges.
Smith’s 199 against the West Indies carries some weight, as it’s his only return above 119 in a total of less than 400. On a tricky, slow surface Smith was excellent – accounting for 50 per cent of his team’s tally.
The glaring mark against this innings is the quality of opposition. The current Windies are a shell of the great teams of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
No doubt big tons against India (192 and 162) and Pakistan (165*) in the summers of 14/15 and 16/17 are among Smith’s more fluent knocks, but like his double century, it came on a friendly road. This isn’t a knock on Smith, for he can only produce on pitches offered to him, but these conditions aren’t testing the capacity of his powers.
Subsequently, when compared against innings on more testing surfaces, and in foreign conditions – where players are truly exposed – they are marked harshly.
While they aren’t notable for sheer volume, Smith has produced several chance-less innings’ in high-pressure situations. His first 100 in Australia came in the series-clinching third Test of the 13/14 Ashes series.
Smith arrived at the wicket at 5/143 on a lively Perth surface. England peppered an inexperienced Smith on the short ball. He answered by hooking and pulling to perfection, orchestrating a decisive fightback with Brad Haddin. This innings launched Smith’s career rival.
Another pivotal knock came later that season in Centurion against South Africa’s vaunted pace attack. Smith scored 100 after Australia was reduced to 4/98 in the first Test of the series. Smith’s riposte would take the Aussies to a 1-0 lead in the series and, eventually, the world number one ranking.
Australia’s captain has and will continue to produce centuries of greater volume, knocks that have more direct implications on a match and perhaps innings with grander rewards. But to date Smith has never been better than he was in Pune.
The skill he mustered to combat one of the worst international surfaces in the modern era was immense. To succeed in spin-friendly conditions against the best spinners in the world meant this was a truly special knock that he will no doubt reflect on for years to come.