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Mark Nicholas

Bradman, Headley, Sutcliffe, Pollock… Smith?

There is much of the all-time greats in the Australian captain

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Field placings? What purpose do they serve?  •  Getty Images

Field placings? What purpose do they serve?  •  Getty Images

Australia have won back the Ashes, and never more deservedly so. England are a decent side, admittedly rocked by the Ben Stokes affair, but a group of good cricketers all the same. Thus, the Australian achievement must not be taken lightly. As Steven Smith proudly spoke of his players, so Joe Root was left nonplussed in admission that, while competing favourably for periods, his men had been outplayed in each of the three matches. Australia have quietly assembled an impressive team - kudos to the selectors - with a varied and penetrating bowling attack at its core. Right now, Smith is alongside Virat Kohli as both the best batsman and most powerful captain in the world. It is around Smith's performances that the wheels of Australian cricket turn.
For the second consecutive Ashes adventure - and in three of the last four - the England players have looked overwhelmed. It is as if the Great Southern land and its cricketers are too harsh for them. Perth, the ground on which England have never beaten a full-strength Australian team, is a good example of this. The hard and bouncy pitch is beyond the remit for English batting, though there is no reason why it should be so. It is a fine place for batsmen once set to play their strokes, as illustrated conclusively throughout the match by Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow and James Vince. Equally, as cracks widen in the pitch, accurate bowlers are given a target that the best of them really should be able to exploit. James Anderson did so on the fourth morning, but too little too late.
When abroad, those bowlers are having to rescue the batters; that is, when the batters are not rescuing the bowlers. It was a sad sight in India a year ago and has become painful in Australia, which is not, we are reminded every four years, a country for old sweats. Alastair Cook is a shadow of the defiant figure who saved the Brisbane Test seven years ago; Stuart Broad a numbing reminder of how the great world spins. Root and his fellow selectors have a difficult choice to make in Melbourne.
Little more than a year ago, Smith batted supremely well in a losing cause in Hobart. The South African attack so humiliated a poorly selected Australian side that changes were inevitable. Less certain then was Smith's hold on the leadership, but in the post-match fallout his call to arms was nothing short of historic. In that fleeting moment of distress, the boy became a man, and a general t'boot. Not that the dusk of each day since has allowed for satisfactory reflection. The subcontinent remains every bit as much a conundrum as it has become for England.
Smith's game is built first on survival and then practicality; the aesthetics are a byproduct. (Incidentally, almost the complete reverse might be said of Vince, though his second innings here revealed a quality that justifies a long look. His batting has it all, except the native instinct of survival.)
Smith is both throwback and modernist, and a man with unforgiving powers of concentration. England are at his mercy
Smith's idiosyncratic ways are being written into Australian folklore. A walk around the WACA revealed children behind the stands in pick-up games taking huge strides back and across their imaginary creases to treat the deliveries they chose to leave alone as hand grenades and the ones they attacked as irritant flies, swatted away behind point and through midwicket in a mass movement of rubber arms, legs and any other part of the anatomy you care to imagine. There is no one Steve Smith shot, no go-to, either for the man himself or the opponent. The stock response to any ball is a single to square leg but should that be blocked, a straight drive or late cut appear just as likely. No batsman, perhaps not even Bradman, can have made more of a mockery of field settings. In the space of one 45-minute period, England tried six on the off side, six on the leg side, and then, when the Brisbane bumper tactic was recalled, no one in front of square on the off side at all. Smith treated all these imposters with similar equanimity, or should we say disdain? For all the fidgets, he is the dude most in control out there.
Obviously enough, he has the eye of a hawk. Mitchell Starc's wonder ball to Vince would have done for Smith too but the snapshot would have been different with Smith open-chested, contorted, surprised, horrified and desolate.
The Australian captain is many cricketers at once - orthodox and unorthodox; innovative, retro, and even antique in that baggy green. He is a passionate leader, utterly unquirky on that front, so much so that the nature of his innings and the extreme way they are celebrated send powerful messages back to the dressing room. This is Kohli too: modern leaders both, without a hint of understatement.
Smith now has 22 hundreds, 14 of them in 29 Tests as captain. Bradman had 14 in 13 Tests as captain. Nobody else comes close. Smith's average is 62, but 74 as captain. In other words, he is getting better. It is not difficult to see that he irritates the England players with his theatrics and grinds them down with his menace. It is clear that he relishes every moment. One imagines he is a man of little sympathy and of empathy only to his own. The books suggest Bradman was of a similar ilk.
Legend says of Bradman that he tired the fielders by deliberately hitting the ball a yard or so short of the boundary. Such was his own fitness that running threes, even throughout long innings, was no problem. Indeed, it may have been sadistic. Bradman's stock in trade was the pull stroke from balls pitched on what was a perfectly good length to the mere mortals around him. Exasperated bowlers were forced to pitch further up and then the Don eased into front-foot drives that split fields as easy as pedants split hairs. Alec Bedser said Bradman was close to impossible to deceive by length.
Learie Constantine said of George Headley: "He places the ball with fiendish cunning, so close and tempting that the player strains a shade too much to make an impossible catch or stop a ball a foot beyond his outstretched finger tips; and then a muscle is pulled or an ankle dragged." Headley used quicksilver footwork to great effect, especially through the off side. As bowlers tightened their line, he learned to employ his strong wrists to manufacture the leg-side angles in his favour. His bat was more sword than bludgeon and the strength of his character would not be overcome.
Towards the end of his career Graeme Pollock told a young and enthusiastic partner, who was garnering singles by dropping the ball into spaces and sprinting hard, that batting was batting, not an athletics meeting. He added that if he would kindly refrain from wearing the old bloke out, he might learn something from watching him up close awhile. Pollock dealt in boundaries, struck with such conviction that bowlers often shook their heads in disbelief. He was into his early forties at the time of that mid-crease conversation and made a barnstorming humdred against the rebel Australians to prove his point.
Herbert Sutcliffe scored quickly, faster than any of the heavy run-makers of the time except Bradman, believing that the new ball was more opportunity than threat. On the more-coal-for-the-winter theory, Sutcliffe picked gaps with a forensic eye and ran hard between the wickets. He glanced and cut, as did many of the players of the age, and drove with surprising power. Above all his gifts were those of temperament and application. John Arlott wrote, "Herbert was cool beyond disturbance."
These few batsmen hold a remarkable place in history, for each of them finished their career with an average set above 60. Adam Voges is among this elite too but cannot - and one suspects would prefer not to be - measured alongside batsmen hailed amongst the greatest ever to play the game. Smith is less likely to be so deferential.
There is a little piece of all of these in Steven Smith. He threads the ball into gaps with uncanny precision; he plays mainly back and very late; he is as comfortable scoring at the top of the ball's bounce as from half-volleys, and he can thump it out of the park when needs must. He is both throwback and modernist, and a man with unforgiving powers of concentration. England are at his mercy.
There are myriad reasons for the weight of this victory and defeat. First among them is that in the conditions, Australia have the better team. How Root must wish for such a bowling attack, and how he misses Stokes, his friend. Some Australians have performed above expectation; too many Englishmen have performed beneath theirs.
Root himself appears gaunt. Miserable Ashes tours do that. It is for Root that one most feels and to Smith that we must doff our hats. This triumph belongs to him more than any other and the de-structured smile he gave the cameras was all the country needed to know about how much it meant to him.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK