It is inevitable that Steven Smith, Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Kane Williamson will constantly be held up against each other for evaluation. The four men are similar in age, are national captains, and have played an almost identical number of Tests. And, as of this writing, they occupy the top four spots on the ICC Test batting rankings, in that order: Smith, Kohli, Root, Williamson. If Kohli has proved himself the best cross-format batsman of the quartet, Smith is hard to beat in Test cricket, after a fourth consecutive 1000-run year
. So it is fitting that the innings judged Test cricket's best of 2017 was played by Test cricket's leading run scorer of 2017, a man who increasingly finds himself second only to Don Bradman on various lists of stats and achievements: Steven Smith.
Some context is required to fully appreciate the significance of Smith's 109 in the first Test against India in Pune in February. Australia embarked on the tour not only without a Test victory in India since 2004
, but having lost nine consecutive Tests in Asia - that is, every Test of their most recent tours of India, the UAE, and Sri Lanka
. Their woes against quality spin bowling on turning pitches had reached such depths that it seemed they had as much chance of winning the Super Bowl as they had of winning a Test in India. It was against this backdrop that Smith made what many observers judged to be not only the best innings of his own career but one of the finest they had ever seen from anybody.
When Smith walked to the crease, the scenario was this: Australia were 10 for 1 after a single over of their second innings, leading by 165 runs, but knowing that their hopes could crumble as quickly as the Pune pitch if they could not hold off India's spinners. Soon they were 23 for 2. The situation demanded a captain's innings, and Smith provided just that. He respected the bowling but used his feet and refused to get bogged down, scoring freely on both sides of the wicket. His fifty came from 93 balls and his hundred from 187 deliveries. Smith rode his luck and had plenty of it. He was dropped on 23, 29, 37 and 67, and also survived a run-out chance and an lbw appeal that Kohli could have had overturned had India had any reviews left. But on a pitch rated "poor" by the ICC
, chances were inevitable. What mattered was that Smith made India pay.
In the end, he made 109 - more than the entire India team made in either innings of the Test. It allowed Australia to set India an impossible 441 for victory. Steve O'Keefe's 12 wickets in the Test made him Man of the Match, but for his runs on a diabolically difficult surface, Smith won countless admirers. Most importantly, he led Australia to their first Test win in India for 13 years.
The dropped catches were all key moments, none more so than the easiest of the bunch, when Smith prodded one up to Abhinav Mukund at short leg. Smith would have been out for 37 and Australia 80 for 4. But all through the innings Smith's intent was clear, right from his sweep to the boundary for four off R Ashwin from the second ball he faced in the innings. Perhaps no shot told India what a challenge they had on their hands like the reverse sweep Smith nailed for four off Ashwin in the 15th over.
202 The number of balls Smith faced in his innings; by comparison, India's entire chase then lasted only 203 deliveries
"You need a bit of luck on a wicket like that. I was pleased to score a second-innings hundred here in India, to formulate a different plan to how I normally play and problem solve on the spot."
- Steven Smith
"It's probably his best, especially in those conditions. I haven't seen him so determined."
- Darren Lehmann
Steven Smith, 141 not out v England, first Test, Brisbane
Just as he had in Pune, Smith put down his marker in the opening Test of a series, his slowest Test century grinding down all of England's plans and helping Australia to a 1-0 Ashes lead.