When Steven Smith was dismissed for 34 in Australia’s second innings at Lord’s, it meant that he would miss out on being the first batter to go into his 100th Test with a 60-plus average – he fell short of that mark by 67 runs.
That was an opportunity missed for Smith, but the mere fact that he got closer to this feat than any batter in Test history speaks of the staggering numbers he has racked up. Smith will enter his 100th Test with an average of 59.56; before him, the highest any batter had achieved going into the landmark game was 58.16, by Rahul Dravid. Dravid eventually finished with a career average of 52.31, which was still wonderful, but in his last 64 Tests, his average dropped by almost six runs.
Can Smith maintain these exceptional standards all the way till the end of his career?
The dizzying highs All top-class batters have periods in their career when they strike extraordinary form. With Smith, what stands out is how high that peak has been, how long he has maintained it, and the different conditions he has conquered during this period.
Through a six-year period from 2014 to 2019, he averaged 72 from 56 matches, scoring 24 centuries, which works out to a hundred every 2.3 matches. Not bad for a player who started off as a legspinner, batted at Nos. 8 and 9 on debut, and bowled more overs (21) than he scored runs (13) in that Test. Since 2020, the numbers have dropped a bit, but he still averages very nearly 50 in those 27 Tests.
In that period between 2014 and 2019, Smith’s average of 72.02 was clearly above everyone else’s – the next-best was Kane Williamson’s 61.95. In fact, among the 20 batters who scored at least 3000 runs in this period, only five averaged more than 50; the other three were Virat Kohli, David Warner and Joe Root, with the last two barely topping 50.
During that six-year period, he averaged 83.34 from 26 home Tests, and 64.25 from 30 away games, scoring 12 hundreds each home and away. In the 18 series of two or more Tests he played in this period, seven times he averaged over 100, while only on four instances did it dip below 40.
Rarely have batters sustained their highs like Smith has done. That six-year dominance included a 50-Test period – between February 12, 2014 and September 4, 2019 – when Smith averaged 76.02, with a mindboggling 23 hundreds. There has only been one instance of a batter averaging more in 50 consecutive Tests: Don Bradman, who averaged 104.13 from his second to his penultimate match. (He scored 18 and 1 on debut, and 0 in his last Test.)
Ricky Ponting and Garry Sobers came close, averaging over 74, Jacques Kallis touched 72, while Shivnarine Chanderpaul (69.33), Kumar Sangakkara (68.49) and Dravid (68.11) all finished in the late 60s. Also, Smith’s aggregate of 5781 runs is second only to Bradman’s 6977 among all batters in any 50-Test period.
Smith’s average has slipped marginally below 60 from the high of 64.81 in September 2019, but the streak of consecutive matches with an average of over 55 is still going strong. That streak started from his 38th Test – the Boxing Day game of 2015 – which means it is already 62 matches old. Only two batters have a longer streak of successive Tests with a 55-plus average: Sobers, 74 Tests from his 20th match onwards (November 1958 till he retired in 1974), and Sachin Tendulkar, 65 Tests from his 69th to his 133rd (October 1999 to December 2006). The Tendulkar streak will be equalled by the end of the ongoing Ashes series, while Sobers’ record is well within reach too. (All of these are averages at the end of a Test, not an innings within the Test.)
Smith’s streak of consecutive Tests averaging over 60 ended at 25, which is well short of the record of 54, by Herbert Sutcliffe. However, ignoring the streak of successive matches, Smith has already ended 43 Tests with an average of 60 or more, which is third in the all-time list. Only Sutcliffe, who averaged over 60 throughout his 54-Test career, and Bradman (49) rank ahead of him.
During Smith’s golden run, he scored over 1000 runs at a 70-plus average in four successive years from 2014 to 2017, a feat no batter has ever achieved. Kallis had five years of 1000 or more runs at a 70-plus average, but only two of those were in succession. Smith fell only 35 short of a fifth such year in 2019, scoring 965 runs at 74.23.
Conquering all conditions
A feature of Smith’s career so far has been his ability score runs in all conditions, from the seam and swing of England, New Zealand and South Africa, to the spin of the subcontinent. He averages more than 40 in all countries where he has played at least five innings, with the lowest being 41.1 from 11 innings in South Africa. He has played only four innings in Bangladesh for an average of 29.75, but in India, he has three hundreds from 19 innings and an average of 50.31, while his overall average in Asia is 47.83 from 40 innings.
Among batters who have played at least 40 Tests overseas (including matches in neutral venues) only two – Wally Hammond and Allan Border – have a higher average than Smith’s 55.60. Among his contemporaries, he is well clear of Root (47.11), Williamson (45.91), Kohli (41.28) and Warner (32.97) on this parameter (as he is on most others).
Not only has Smith scored runs in all conditions, he also has a terrific record in general against the best bowlers in their home conditions.
Since the start of 2014, he has scored 106 runs off James Anderson in England without being dismissed, while against Stuart Broad he averages 49.16. (He has also scored 160 runs off Jofra Archer and Mark Wood without being dismissed.) Similarly, against Trent Boult and Tim Southee in New Zealand, he has scored 115 runs without being dismissed, and against Vernon Philander in South Africa his record is 91 runs for no dismissal. Against R Ashwin in India he averages 38.5. The two bowlers he has struggled against are left-arm spinners Ravindra Jadeja (six dismissals at 28.83 in India) and Rangana Herath in Sri Lanka (five dismissals at 15.8 in Sri Lanka).
The table above consists of some select batters and their overall numbers, since January 2014, against top bowlers in their home conditions. The bowlers included in this list are the 24 names who have taken 50 or more wickets at home at an average of under 26 during this period. It excludes matches played at neutral venues (so matches played in the UAE are not included, and neither are the WTC finals).
Among the 68 batters who have scored at least 300 runs against these bowlers in their home conditions, Smith’s numbers stand out again: he averages 51.53 against them, more than six runs clear of Root, who is next-best at 45.03. Marnus Labuschagne and Usman Khawaja are impressive too, while Kohli, Babar Azam, Rohit Sharma and Williamson all average in the early to mid-30s.
All great batters have the ability to stamp their authority early on in a game, but Smith takes it to a ridiculous extreme: in the first innings of a Test, he averages a phenomenal 87.24, with 22 centuries in 60 innings. In fact, more than half his career runs – 4624 out of 9113 – have been scored in the first innings of a Test. With a 2500-run cut-off, the next best is Brian Lara’s 70.17, which means Smith is about 24% better than the second best on this parameter, which is quite staggering given the quality of batters on this list. Smith’s 22 first-innings hundreds is already the most by any batter. Ponting is next on 21 (92 innings), followed by Kallis and Tendulkar on 20 each, from 80 and 91 innings respectively.
Australia have lost the toss and been put in to bat 15 times in Smith’s career, and in those 15 innings, Smith averages 85.76 with seven hundreds, including two in his most recent such instances last month – 121 against India in the World Test Championship final, and 110 last week at Lord’s. Three of those 15 innings came in 2010, before Smith became the batting legend he has. In those three innings, his scores were 1, 7, 6; exclude them, and his record in first innings when put in to bat becomes even more scary – 1101 runs from 12 innings, at an average of 110.1. Now that’s truly Bradmanesque.