Best since Bradman? Time for a Smith reality check
CRICKET: Steve Smith is the best Test batsman in the world right now and possibly the player of his generation - but is he the best since the Don? It's far too soon to even suggest that.
Smith sent statisticians and cricket tragics into overdrive at the WACA, notching the second double-century of his Test career to power Australia to Ashes glory. It pushed his average to a near unheralded 62.32 and his ICC Test batting rating - a current pure performance indicator and what the world rankings are based on - to the second highest in history behind only Bradman himself.
Only Bradman scored more runs in his first 59 Tests - impressive since he only played 52 - than Smith and only Bradman scored more centuries.
The hype that surrounds the Australian captain is understandable and well-earned but it's a dangerous game to tag anyone the best since Bradman so early in their Test career.
The most exciting thing about Smith is that he has so much of his career ahead of him. He is only 28 years old, entering the prime years of his career and has at least five years left in Test cricket. And that's a conservative estimate.
At the same time he is only 28 years old and he has so much of his career ahead of him.
There is no guarantee he has not already enjoyed the best period of his career - statistically speaking, Sachin Tendulkar reached his peak at 28 - and there's a chance across those next five years things go pear-shaped for the Australian captain.
Another Australian great, Allan Border commented on that very topic on Fox Sports' Inside Cricket: "You've got to wait until close to the end to see where he stacks up against blokes like Greg Chappell and Ricky Ponting.
"Steven Smith's he's only half way through, he might be better than Bradman, who knows?"
While it is true that we have never seen any player bar Bradman dominate their first 59 Tests as Smith has - his average of 62.32 is the best of any player at this point in their career - we have seen a man climb even greater heights and sustain such heights for longer. A man Bradman rated as the greatest cricketer he had ever seen.
Garfield Sobers averaged two runs fewer than Smith (60.74) at the same stage in his career. However, his peak of 63.78 after 65 Tests is only surpassed by Bradman among players 50 matches or more into their careers
Sobers' average didn't drop back under 60 until the completion of his 73rd match and he finished his career with an average of 57.78 after 93 Tests, a record that surely has him in the debate for best since the Don.
No wonder Ian Chappell rated him the best player he had ever seen in 2013.
"For fans who didn't see Sobers play, he could be every bit as destructive as Viv Richards or Adam Gilchrist, but he was technically superior," Chappell wrote of the West Indian for Cricinfo. Martin Crowe was similarly effusive in his praise of Sobers in the same piece.
"I believe the greatest batting partnership you could ever wish to lay your eyes on would be Don Bradman and Garry Sobers, the greatest left-hander of all time," Crowe said.
Bradman himself rated Sobers' 254 for a World XI against Australia in 1971-72 as the greatest he had ever seen. Sobers was 35 by that stage and taking on an attack led by a young Dennis Lillee.
He's also the first man Bradman picked in his dream team in 2001.
"He offers balance and variety with bat and ball. He is, in my opinion, the greatest cricketer of all time," Bradman said, referencing the 235 wickets Sobers captured bowling pace with the new ball and both types of left-arm spin with the old ball.
Bradman's contemporary Wally Hammond - who was picked as 12th man in the aforementioned dream team - never quite managed Smith's 62.32 but was averaging 61.46 after 74 Tests and kept his average in the 60s until his 82nd Test. Ken Barrington, the other man to have averaged over 60 (60.02) after 59 Tests, averaged 60.25 after 76 Tests.
The point is, we are not in entirely uncharted territory with Smith.
While Sobers, Hammond and Barrington played an age ago, there are more recent players to consider in this debate.
The purple patch Smith is enjoying right now will be talked about for years to come but his real standing among the greats will be determined by longevity and consistency.
It's why in the last 25 years Ricky Ponting, Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis and Kumar Sangakkara stand above the rest.
Of the four, only Tendulkar made Bradman's best XI - Sangakkara was only a year into his Test career to be fair - and before Smith, it was Tendulkar who bore the tag of the next Don. That was largely down to Bradman himself.
"I was very struck by his technique," Bradman said after seeing the Indian maestro score 90 in the 1996 World Cup against Australia. "I asked my wife to come and have a look at him and said, 'I never saw myself play but I feel that this player is playing much the same as I played.'
"She had a look at him and said, 'Yes, there is a similarity between the two of you.'
"It was just his compactness, his stroke production, his technique, it all seemed to gel as far as I was concerned and that was how I felt."
Bradman made sure to catch every one of Tendulkar's innings for the next five years and the Indian went places no one has ever been before. By stumps in 2013, the Little Master had scored more runs (15921 at 53.78) and more centuries (51 tons) than any player ever has in Test cricket. Remarkably, he kept his average above 55 until his 189th Test and was averaging 58.87 at his peak 90 matches into his career when he was 28 years old.
How Tendulkar reacted to Bradman's praise is worth bearing in mind when we consider Smith's standing in the game too.
Only 23 years old when the comparison came, Tendulkar said: "But looking from his angle I think it's very unfair on part of Don to be compared to me because he has played cricket for 20 years and I have played for seven years."
Ponting raised the same point 20 years later when he penned the foreword for an anthology dedicated to his greatest batting rival, Tendulkar.
"The word great is often bandied about, but great is something that's achieved over a long period of time," Ponting wrote. "Younger players may reach No.1 over a period of 12 or 18 months - that's not great. That's having a good year. If you can do it as long as Sachin did, only then can you be considered great.
"For me, he's the greatest batsman after Don Bradman."
In a different world, Tendulkar could have been writing those same words about Ponting. For a few years in the 2000s the Australian looked destined to finish his career with superior numbers to Tendulkar. Around the same time as the Indian was struggling to adjust to life with tennis elbow, Ponting took his average to 59.99. He had played 107 Tests by that stage and stayed within a run of 60 until he had played 112.
Ponting finished his career with the second-most Test runs and centuries (13378 runs, 41 centuries) of all time. Brian Lara's numbers weren't as impressive (11953 at 52.88, 34 centuries) but he managed them for a struggling West Indian outfit. That's special.
Sangakkara (57.40) and Kallis (55.37), dux of the school of substance over style and by numbers, the game's best-ever player, are the only men to have played over 100 Tests and finished with averages above 55.
Thus far, consistency has not been a problem for Smith, who has averaged 71.88 since scoring his first Test century 48 games ago. But nobody is perfect and everybody falls into a rut at some stage.
Last year, Alastair Cook went past the 10,000-run mark in Test cricket and was being tipped to push for Tendulkar's record of most runs. Now, there are calls for Cook to retire.
Tendulkar himself had years to forget in 2003 (153 runs at 17.00) and 2006 (267 at 24.27).
And while Ponting averaged close to 60 for most of his career, by the time he finished that number dropped perilously close to 50 (51.85).
The Australian great recently suggested Smith could go down as cricket's greatest ever batsman, pointing to how quickly he had already gone past 5000 Test runs and 20 centuries. At the same time, he admitted using those numbers to predict how Smith's career was going to play out was fraught with danger.
"The hard thing about trying to make those sort of judgments is the longevity of the players, you just never know what's going to happen," he told cricket.com.au.
Smith could go on to be the second-best batsman ever but tipping him to reach such lofty heights while he is still in the first half of his career is premature.