How do you stop Smith? After he scores a hundred
Overheard conversations at the SCG #1
Location: The Bradman Stand
Subject: Steven Smith
"How do you get him out?"
"I don't know."
It is entirely possible that I would have overheard the same conversation had I been fielding at second slip, eavesdropping on MS Dhoni and Ravichandran Ashwin, rather than sitting high up in the SCG stands, watching an ominously potent, but not perfect, performance by an Australian team that recovered brilliantly from its passages of vulnerability.
I would almost certainly have overheard it had I been at an Indian team meeting before the semi-final. Or before any of their matches during their long Australian season. Or in any of the dressing rooms of the opponents that Steven Smith has faced over the past 18 months, since his maiden Test century at The Oval in 2013 uncorked an unending Jeroboam of runs for the magic-handed 25-year-old.
Since the start of that innings, which at the time seemed little more than a consolation hundred at the end of another England Ashes triumph, rather than the harbinger of the explosion of a potential all-time great, Smith has averaged 73.21 in 15 Tests. He scored his first one-day century on 7 October 2014, against Pakistan in Sharjah. Since the start of that dam-busting hundred, he has averaged 67.73 in 17 ODI innings. (This, you might argue, raises an interesting philosophical question: did Steve Smith improve because he scored hundreds, or does Steve Smith score hundreds because he has improved? Please send your answers, written clearly on a chicken or an egg - whichever you find first - to No.1, Cricket Street.)
What made this snippet of grandstand conversation unusual was not its subject, who has scored seven centuries and 10 more half-centuries in his 28 international innings since October 7, and whose immovable assurance at the crease is therefore now well established, but its timing.
Smith had just driven Umesh Yadav for four through mid-off, with minimal foot movement but perfect balance, and characteristic high hands giving the ball exact and unarguable instructions as to where it should go. It was the third ball he had faced. Australia had lost an early wicket, the partisan crowd at Eden Gardens Sydney was baying for more canary yellow scalps, and a World Cup semi-final was at stake. "How do you get him out?" Three balls to appear utterly, impregnably supreme.
Such is the inevitability of Smith's batting. Or the apparent inevitability of it - he narrowly avoided being out leg before wicket a few balls later. Thereafter, he milked singles as simply as if he was picking apples from an unattended basket full of already picked apples. He pulled meatily, but caressed drives with almost vegan delicateness. He hit boundaries so sweetly that, had the ball been an egg, it would have hit the fence not only uncracked but perfectly cooked.
With his time-expanding footwork and ball-hypnotising wristwork, Smith exerted total mastery over (a) the ball, which did his bidding with an almost supine willingness; (b) the occasion, a bizarre anti-home match in which Australian players were vociferously booed when playing in a World Cup semi-final on their allegedly home soil; and (c) a bowling attack that, until encountering him, had been almost unremittingly dominant.
That attack was still largely dominant when Smith was not on strike, and was bowling instead to Aaron Finch, a renowned destroyer of bowlers, a power punisher of the wayward. Finch battled to 62 off 102 balls by the time Smith reached his century off 89. Smith had batted with barely any perceptible alarms, and few obvious risks. Finch had been more overtly aggressive and taken more chances. Similarly, in his quarter-final 65 against Pakistan, whilst Watson was flailing and hoping, Smith seemed to be waiting and directing, apparently undismissable. Until he was actually dismissed.
The answer to the question of how to dismiss Smith, it transpired, was simple: wait for him to score a century. Smith's four ODI centuries have been 101, 104, 102 not out, and now 105. Not only did Smith guide his country to a World Cup final with an innings of near-flawless, obvious yet undemonstrative brilliance, but he also set a record - the first man in the history of humanity to score four ODI centuries in a season without passing 105.
Early in his international career, Smith appeared to have numerous exposable frailties as a batsman. He has rectified or conquered them all. Likewise, we can expect him to find a way to make it to at least 106 in the near future. New Zealand will be hoping it is not in the very near future (and they were one of only two teams in this World Cup to dismiss Smith for under 65, alongside England, who therefore become de facto bronze medallists).
Time will tell how great a batsman Smith proves to be. At the moment, he exudes the certainty of batting greatness. Those magical hands, honed through his early international struggles and his years of dedication and practice, give him unrestrainable dexterity, precision and power. He is fascinating to watch, a batsman of unorthodox majesty, whose calculations and talents are visible from the stands, who, in his current flourishing, blends the proactive invention of a Pietersen with the reliability and perfection of a Kallis.
Overheard conversations at the SCG #2
Location: A lift, immediately after the end of the match
Subject: Batsman being hit in the face
Child: "Which batsman was hit in the face at the end?"
Child: "Oh. Who was the bowler?"
Father: "Mitchell Starc."
How can England be considered to have had a bad World Cup when they have been not only one of two teams to silence Steve Smith, but also the only team to score more than four runs an over off Mitchell Starc?
Starc has become Australia's bowling hero in this World Cup. This has been a great tournament for genuinely fast bowling, and Starc has been the prime exponent of cricket's most thrilling skill. 20 wickets in 55.5 overs in seven matches, striking every 16.7 balls, at an average of 10.2, with an economy rate of 3.65.
Statistically, he had been a phenomenon. 361 bowlers have taken six or more wickets in a single World Cup. With one match to go, Starc has the second best tournament strike rate of those 361 - behind New Zealand's Corey Anderson, whose 14 wickets this tournament have come at an extraordinary rate of one per 15 balls, which is an acceptable performance for someone described by TV pundits during the Auckland semi-final as a "part-timer", rather flagrantly and unnecessarily ignoring his (a) tournament and (b) career statistics - (please can England have a fifth bowler who has taken 50 wickets at 24.68 in 34 ODIs).
Starc also has the second best tournament average of the 361 - behind Courtney Walsh's 11 wickets at 9.8 in 1999. And he has the best economy rate of the 108 bowlers in this tournament who have bowled more than seven overs.
More importantly, he has played a significant role in every match he has played. And been spell-binding to watch. He seldom bowls a delivery measured at under 90mph, yet has maintained almost unhittable control alongside his almost unhittable pace. He has splattered stumps, hoarded dot balls, and made young boys glad that, if someone is going to be hit in the face with a cricket ball, they should at least have the honour of that ball having been bowled by Starc.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer