The end of another competitive Ashes series between England and Australia has seen Australia retain the urn after the five-match serious ended 2-2.
Something occurred to me late Saturday night/early Sunday morning.
I was watching Steve Smith wander in slow motion across the crease during a gripping Ashes Test in a gripping Ashes series, as I scrambled to compose a pithy tweet that would capture the magnitude of what Smith is doing, that I don’t have the words. And not only do I not have the words, I have nothing close to them.
To words that will do justice to what we are witnessing at the moment, and have been witnessing for most of the last six years, punctured only by Smith’s year-long absence from the game.
I have grown up idolising the likes of LeBron James and Chris Judd and have closely followed tennis’ Big 3 so I am no stranger to transcendent talents bursting onto the scene and doing things I hadn’t conceived possible.
But this feels somehow different with Smith. The gap between him and next-best, both in raw numbers and eye test, is like nothing I’ve ever seen.
I imagine the best recent example of this chasm between one man and the rest would be Tiger Woods but I was too young at the time to fully appreciate his dominance.
This experience is essentially one of seeing something that we didn’t anticipate, that stretches our imagination of what is possible athletically.
There is no Zion Williamson without LeBron, nor any of the glut of power hitters dominating golf without Tiger. And this is surely one of the things, if not the main thing, that keeps bringing us back to sport again and again.
That despite the sometimes monotony and oft repetition, of contests and outcomes, narratives and players, that we will see something completely new and, if not, the promise of something new is constant.
I never imagined that I would so soon see a batsman who – and really I’m not getting caught up in the moment here – is clearly better than the modern greats in Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar.
I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn here, the man is averaging 65 for god’s sake! But, as with words, the stats also fail to do justice to the gulf in ability between Smith and his peers, current and past.
More telling is the reverence approaching awe and bewilderment infusing so much of expert commentary during his lengthy holidays at the crease.
Ponting is not a man given to hyperbole or effusive praise, but even he seems stunned that someone could be this good. And who can blame him?
Take Saturday night for example. Australia were four for not many, with Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer – a bowler who had knocked Smith’s block off in the last Test he played – moving the ball both ways at 140km/h+.
Smith strolls to the wicket, makes a mockery of the conditions and 82 at nearly a run a ball, playing a series of increasingly unconventional pull/slap/bunt hybrid shots and even guiding a lightning Archer delivery to the third man fence as if he were a net bowler invited to get the star player’s confidence up.
Some of Smith’s movements around the crease were so bizarre I honestly wondered whether he was setting himself challenges to play new shots he’d been trying in the nets or to see how far he could take his pre-delivery movements without them becoming a detriment.
That the thought of someone doing this in international competition is even plausible, with Test and series on the line, ball humming around violently, is something new.
Before you dismiss this too quickly, Smith’s erratic, swashbuckling flourishes after leaving the ball are of a piece with this theory as they appear to be Smith entertaining himself.
He is bored by balls he doesn’t have to face because he wants to feel bat on ball as often as possible. Other batsmen enjoy the reprieve from trying not to get out, but Smith never seems worried about that because he’s more of a threat to his wicket than any bowler these days.
The obsessive nature of his training – from shadow-batting in the shower to getting throwdowns from his partner in the wee hours – bear the mark of a compulsive.
Keeping oneself entertained and finding challenges are the province of an individual who finds things too easy and that is exactly where Smith finds himself.
In both innings of the fourth Test Smith got himself out, not through laziness, but through wild stroke play as he looked to up the ante and take the game out of England’s reach.
When was the last time you were genuinely dumbfounded by an athlete? For me, it’s happened once or twice only and that was, like the rest of the world, watching Usain Bolt for the first time at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
West Coast Judd inspired similar disbelief but I was fairly young then and as a West Coast fan I already had a rooting interest so maybe that colours my view.
I guess this viewing experience is amplified in cricket because the obvious superiority of a batsman can be drummed in, as it is unceasingly with Smith, ball after ball after ball, over after over, session after session.
The bowler trudges back to the top of his mark and seems resigned to what the audience knows will happen. Smith will perform his magical, fidgety ritual, take a varying but appropriate number of steps across his crease and deposit the ball wherever his mood takes him.
Another of the most unique and entertaining indicators of Smith’s talent is his tendency to castigate himself and immediately practice an exaggerated, almost theatrical version of the ‘correct’ shot after missing out on runs.
This demonstrates Smith’s total conviction in being above the bowler; he is annoyed at himself for not capitalising on what he thought was a bad ball, fully expects to cash in next time round, and never once contemplates that the bowler may have done something well.
In Smith’s mind, his success rises and falls with him alone and is not subject to external factors. Not even the aforementioned Ponting, Lara or Tendulkar at their peaks played with such contempt for bowlers.
Another new aspect of the Smith phenomenon is how utterly weird he is, and how closely tied that weirdness seems to be to his success.
The unabashed goofiness and nervous tics combine to give the impression of an athlete who is unconcerned with anything other than making runs.
Virtually every major Australian cricketer has been typically blokey and within the ‘sports jock’ category.
This is not to say that they have all been the same, but more to emphasise how strange it is to witness someone who is so obviously and uniquely not within that group.
Smith is probably in a two-man discussion with Shane Warne for the best cricketer we’ve had since Don Bradman, a fellow oddball who was notoriously aloof and reportedly had few friends. Without knowing the details of his personal life, I get the distinct impression Smith is in a similar boat.
And really, how could someone so consumed by their passion have much time for socialising?
That Smith was suspended for a whole year until recently, makes his current form all the more absurd. Warne was also suspended for a year and came back at the same level but it’s hard to argue he got any better, which somehow Smith appears to have done.
The only other athlete that springs to mind that returned from a lengthy absence better than they left their sport is Muhammad Ali. In the interests of fairness and accuracy, Ali was out of boxing for nearly four years and due to a brave moral stance as opposed to a ban for cheating, but the point stands that dominant athletes returning from an extended absence and improving upon their previous form is as rare as Smith failing.
Smith has parachuted into the biggest series of all, featuring outstanding fast bowling and off the back of a World Cup where he uncharacteristically struggled and which England uncharacteristically won, and immediately reasserted his position as the best batsman in the world.
Sure, he had plenty of time to work on his game and to clear his head, but his return to Test cricket has been devoid of any nerves. Any visible struggle at all really.
Again, words fail to capture the enormity of his brilliance. The contrast with David Warner’s return says more than words ever could.
From the first ball of the series Warner has looked a shell of the bullying batsman he once was to the point that his position in the side is being widely questioned, an unthinkable proposition even as recently as his impressive World Cup.
Comparisons to his opponents are no less revelatory. Take, for instance, Smith’s ‘closest’ contemporary in this series, Joe Root, who once formed part of an emerging ‘Big 4’ but who has fallen away compared to the others.
It doesn’t seem right in any way to compare them anymore, and not out of any notion that Root is no good, but out of compassion for him, that the comparison so greatly diminishes a fine player that it’s best left alone.
Even the legion of Indian cricket fans on Twitter begrudgingly accept Smith’s supremacy, regularly offering Virat Kohli’s one day record unsolicited in implicit acknowledgement that in Tests – still the main game in cricket – Smith is peerless.
So, after deciding it’s impossible to adequately capture the essence of Smith, I’ve just spent 1-2000 or so rambling words attempting to do exactly that.
I’m doing it partly as an attempt to understand what it is I’m watching, partly because what Smith is doing needs to be recorded and contextualised beyond endless recitals of his freakish stats and the anecdotes of his devotion to training and partly because I’m a cricket nuffy with nothing better to do and on a high that we’ve retained the Ashes.
Ordinarily I might be concerned that in singing his praises I’d jinx Smith and damn him to poor form in the foreseeable future but the distinct lack of concern I feel when he’s batting is another new experience in Test cricket.
Opposition captains and coaches have basically admitted to the media that they have no idea how to get him out.
Far more likely for the foreseeable future is Smith having opposition teams searching haplessly for ways to get him out and writers searching haplessly for ways to capture what he’s doing. Good luck to them.