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Cricket news - Steve Smith, the Jimi Hendrix of batting?
Is Steve Smith a genius or is he just purely ingenious? Does his batting intrigue you or does it beguile you? Is he the best batsman of his generation or is he simply the most effective batsman who's ever lived?
What he clearly does do is pose questions and gets everyone else to ask questions at the same time. No, not just the opposition captains and bowlers, but everyone who watches him, from the stands or on TV, starting with how does he do it? For, in a game that thrives on technique and convention when it comes to batting in particular, Smith ideally shouldn't be able to do what he does the way he does it. But he still does it better than most. Nobody has quite done it like him nor ever will perhaps. But he's still the best in the world.
Like with England and Joe Root in Birmingham, he's had many a captain literally breaking their heads over how to get him out. You wonder if there's any batsman over the last 70 years who's made it so undecipherable for the opposition to figure a way of getting him out. And there's been no dearth of sensationally gifted and talented batsmen who have ruled the world in that time.
What's perhaps most unfathomable about Smith is that he's not the most gifted or the most talented in the purest sense. But he's still only second to Don Bradman, at least in terms of the rate and consistency at which he scores runs and centuries in Test cricket.
The headache that comes from figuring out how to get the better of Smith with a red cricket ball is shared by experts, commentators and even journalists for that matter. For, when he bats the way he has, despite a 17-month break from the game, there seems to be no plausible way to get him out, unless he gets out himself.
Whether it was Viv Richards, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara or Jacques Kallis and Ricky Ponting or even Kumar Sangakkara and Virat Kohli, you always knew they could bully and destroy any bowling line-up. But did any of them ever seem as indestructible or nearly impossible to dismiss as Smith has done in Test cricket when on top of his game? You also wonder if for someone with the most unorthodox technique of all time, has any other batsman got the entire cricket world to talk about, discuss and decipher his batting technique as Smith has over the last few years.
In Birmingham itself over the last four days, Stuart Broad has spoken about Smith being the most awkward batsman to bowl to on a slow pitch. Chris Woakes has talked about putting fielders in places that Smith prefers to score through with the hope that he hits the ball in the air towards them.
And England like many teams before them have revealed to have spent hours finding some chink in the Smith armour to somehow see the back of him. On Sunday (August 4), with Smith still only unbeaten on 20, there were four English senior players huddled together trying to come up with the latest strategy. It wasn't the only time they got together during the first half of the day while Smith was out there, and won't be the last you'd think over the next six weeks.
Is Steve Smith then the Jimi Hendrix of batting? It was believed that Hendrix could take you to places you'd never been before with a guitar in hand. And also that often the listener would be astounded aurally by what they were hearing even though they knew what was coming.
It's the same with Smith. He did reveal on Sunday that he changes his grip slightly when shifting from white-ball cricket to Tests, but it isn't as extreme as restringing a right-hander's guitar and then creating magic with it left-handed. But like with Hendrix, when Smith is in the middle, scoring runs in the midst of all his idiosyncrasies, it does make you wonder what exactly is going on here? It's just that in both their cases, nobody had ever played it the way they had because in many ways nobody ever thought it could be.
Well every shot that Smith does play, owing to the positions he gets into mostly, are the cricketing versions of blue notes. But unlike when you play them on a guitar, they aren't played at a slightly different pitch than standard; they just seem to be played on a different pitch to the others playing in the same match.
Hendrix went down on his knees and set his guitar on fire. At Edgbaston, it was the English bowlers and fielders who were left on their knees with their hopes of going past the Smith defence up in flames and reduced to Ashes of a different kind. For, the Voodoo Child of cricket batting wasn't just holding court, he was busy setting it ablaze.
The thing with Smith is he's not always playing games only with the bowlers, it seems he involves himself in it as well. Like all exceptional batsman he always seems to spot the gaps and not the fielders. But often you'll see him get obsessed with one gap in particular that he hasn't previously penetrated and then keep trying to hit a ball through there. For two straight overs facing Moeen Ali on Sunday, he would keep turning towards the space beyond the short-leg fielder and between fine-leg and deep backward square-leg and gazing longingly.
Ali to his credit kept bowling in areas from where Smith simply couldn't get the ball there. But without fail he would turn and look towards the gap, and you could sense the evident delight in him when he finally got the ball past short-leg, even if it was only for a couple of runs. Similarly, there are some leaves that seem to give Smith more joy than others, and like he did after driving Ben Stokes through cover-point for a boundary, he doesn't mind letting the bowler know that he took a lot of joy in producing the shot.
But as always when you try and ask him about these self-indulgent games within games, Smith rarely divulges much. On Sunday when asked about why he looks pleased with some leaves and shots, fellow centurion Matthew Wade butted in with a warning saying, "Dangerous question trying to get in Smudge's head. You don't want to be in there." And once Smith was done giving nothing away, Wade piped in again. "Told ya."
Maybe, just maybe, even Smith doesn't have answers to the incessant questions that arise from his style of batting and the success he manages to achieve with it. And maybe he is a genius as a result of his ingenuity. Maybe he does both beguile and intrigue everyone who bears witness to his singular and unmatchable skills. And maybe, though not quite yet, he will in addition to already being the most effective batsman in history, be hailed as the best to have done so as well, even if we'll never have a definitive answer to how he does what he does.
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