Is Steve Smith better than Virat Kohli?

Cricket - Ashes 2019 - Fourth Test - England v Australia - Emirates Old Trafford, Manchester, Britain - September 5, 2019   Australia's Steve Smith celebrates his century    Action Images via Reuters/Jason Cairnduff
Steve Smith scores yet another century (Photo by Action Images via Reuters/Jason Cairnduff|)

For the last year, maybe two, if you had asked any cricket fan, casual or committed, who is the best batsman in the world, they would tell you it’s Virat Kohli.

They would have been right, too. He’s excellent.

Last summer, when Kohli played against England, whose captain Joe Root was also in that conversation, he scored 593 runs in the series, 260 more than any other player.

The first time he toured England in 2014, he averaged just 13. Back then, he consistently edged to England’s slips and looked unsure about anything pitched around off stump. Not anymore. He’s ironed that out of his game and dominated England’s – and everyone else’s – attack.

Virat Kohli of India walks off the field at the lunch break during day 4 of the 2nd Test between West Indies and India at Sabina Park, Kingston, Jamaica, on September 2, 2019. (Photo by Randy Brooks / AFP)        (Photo credit should read RANDY BROOKS/AFP/Getty Images)
India's Virat Kohli (Photo by Randy Brooks/AFP/Getty Images)

A little under a year ago he became the 14th batsman to reach 10,000 ODI runs. It took him 54 innings less to get there than the next fastest player, his compatriot Sachin Tendulkar.

Yet, as cliche as it sounds, you can score a boat load of runs with the white ball but the ultimate measure of a great batsman remains the Test environment.

A successful Test batsman must take every piece of information he’s ever downloaded from the game and use it to make the correct decisions and execute them precisely.

Enter (or perhaps, re-enter) Steve Smith. Everything about the Sydney man’s technique suggests he shouldn’t be great. No coach would ever advise a young player to do as Smith does. But it is a testament to the fact that players should do what suits them, not what’s good for someone else.

Fans can argue back and forth about whether it’s ok to boo him or not, whether it’s in the spirit of the game or whether everything is becoming ‘too much like football’.

You can boo him if you want. Smith gave up the right to take offence the moment he cheated. It doesn’t matter. None of it does. Smith’s absence from the game for ball tampering, if anything, has made him better.

England’s support hoped, half-expected even, Smith might return to these shores timid, nervy and desperate to get away from it all. The opposite has happened. With every opportunity given to him, he’s sticking out there for as long as possible.

England’s bowling attack has been excellent this summer. Some Stuart Broad’s spells have been devastating and Jofra Archer might have had the best start to any England across any sport. Ever.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 05: Jofra Archer of England looks on during day two of the 4th Specsavers Test between England and Australia at Old Trafford on September 05, 2019 in Manchester, England.
Archer has struggled against Smith this summer (Getty)

And yet, neither of them have managed to get Smith out. At times, two of the best bowlers in the world at the moment, have looked bereft of ideas.

By shifting across to off stump when he takes up his guard, he has significantly reduced lbw dismissals. While his style his unconventional, he sees the ball earlier than pretty much anyone and anything short of length is given the treatment.

Since he was awarded his first baggy green cap, he has averaged 66.24 and made 26 half centuries. Of those 26 he has turned every single one of them into 100 - when he gets in, he stays there.

In his last seven Tests against England, he’s averaged 133. In this series it’s 126, and he’s scored more runs than anyone on either side (378 at the start of the 4th Test), despite playing one Test less. And While England’s attack continues to toil away, the aura around Kohli has slipped (just), with two golden ducks in India’s series against the West Indies.

Admittedly, Kohli’s ODI record is unrivalled, bordering on the obscene. And no one is saying that he’s bad, far from it. But the lack of ring rust that Smith has displayed this summer should terrify opponents and excite supporters in equal measure.

Richie McCaw, the iconic All Black, won a Rugby World Cup in 2011 but the toll that, and his career beforehand, took on his body led to him taking a sabbatical from the game two years later. When he returned to the fold, he won another World Cup. The time off proved to be a total success.

Smith’s punitive version of a sabbatical, hunkering down and getting away from the game, seems to have had a similar effect. He didn’t have to walk out to the crease a week later with fans calling for his head. Instead, he went away, had time to reflect on it all and prepare himself mentally for what was to come. Rather than diminish him, it might have just prolonged his incredible career.