The recently concluded Boxing Day Test can be summarised as a tale of two towering batsmen of the modern game.
And that also gives us an opportunity to distinguish between the zone of the very good and the rarefied echelons of greatness.
One may have multiple qualms in according to the Alastair Cook masterclass the sobriquet of a superlative innings. Of course, he had failed ever too often in the recent series, with not a hint of form, until The Ashes had been reclaimed by Australia. Being the only English batsman to have scored heavily in Australia (albeit in one of the three series he had played here earlier) there was plenty of responsibility on his shoulders and in that respect, he did fail to contribute while the series was alive.
However, whatever the situation and whatever the state of the pitch, batting ten and a half hours and carrying one’s bat, scoring 244 unbeaten runs, and all this while the world is busy snapping at your heels, is no easy effort. He may have his fans and detractors in equal quantities, people may treat him as a pillar of the line up or a batsman with limited versatility, but the fact remains that Cook has too many runs, too many centuries, and around too many countries in the world not to be recognised as a major force in the modern game.
Yes, in some ways this 244 not out was one of the innings that skew the tale of averages into its half-truth version, it covers failures when it mattered and massages the overall figures into a mould of consistency. But this innings was definitely a major triumph of guts, grit and indomitable character.
Cook did demonstrate that even as critics called for his head, he was in no way finished at the top level. And that is indeed good news. If we look at it from another angle, if he had continued his saga of failures, there was a good chance of the series results reading 4-0 in favour of Australia now. That has to be taken into consideration as well.
And on the other side, there was the phenomenon called Steven Smith.
Neville Cardus, with his penchant for the poetic hyperbole and blatant hero-worship, produced this immortal line about his idol Jack Hobbs: “A snick by Hobbs is a sort of disturbance of a cosmic orderliness.”
Whether the Cardusian statement is accurate or not, similar sentiments prevailed on the morning of the second day when Smith dragged a ball from young Tom Curran to his stumps for 76.
The Australian captain getting out was shocking news. A disturbance in the order of things.
Much like the Star in August 1930 had an entire page blaring ‘He’s Out’ … and the moment one glanced at it, one knew that the subject was a man called Don Bradman. And he had just fallen for 232 at The Oval. A Smith dismissal, at least at the current moment, carries similar effect.
Smith obviously made up for it with an unbeaten 102 in the second innings, securing a draw and bringing up his third hundred of the series. He thus took his final tally of runs this year to 1305 at 76.76, with 6 hundreds. His career stats at this point read a breathtaking 5974 runs at 63.55 in 60 Tests with 23 hundreds.
As things stand now, he is phenomenal.
The saga of scores may or may not last. His stratospheric average may diminish, the arrow of time may have a bearing in his progress, and with time his eyes may not have that extraordinary keenness which enables him to play straight balls off his pads in front of the off and middle stumps. But at the current moment, he has already established himself as one of the greatest names in cricket, across the length and breadth of the game’s landscape.
When Alastair Cook scored a return-to-form double hundred it was news. When David Warner got the hundred in the first innings it was news. When Steven Smith got out for 76 in the first essay it was shocking news.
That is the difference between Smith and the rest of the world right now. When dismissal becomes news, and success is considered run-of-the-mill, one transcends simple merit, even greatness and gets into the realm of iconic legends. Bradman was definitely the forerunner of this phenomenon. For much of the 1960s, Garry Sobers was one too. The 1993-2002 edition of Sachin Tendulkar was yet another. There are very few examples in world cricket like this, the rattle of whose stumps created headlines.
The year has thus ended with one of the modern batting maestros essaying one marathon innings to gain the much needed elixir to rejuvenate his career.
And then there is the other modern master, who has marched up the path of greatness to close the year as another of his never-ending sequence of an annus mirabilis.