Chris Waters - Why it’s impossible to compare Steve Smith with Don Bradman

“THE best Test match batsman I have seen” – Michael Vaughan.

Australia's Steve Smith: First Test man of the match.
Australia's Steve Smith: First Test man of the match.

“I’ve never seen anything like him” – Steve Waugh.

“He’s up there (with Bradman)” – Justin Langer.

Just some of the praise piled on Steve Smith after the Australian scored two hundreds in the first Ashes Test.

It is difficult to argue with Smith’s statistics: 6,485 runs in 65 Tests at an average of 62.96; 25 hundreds and 24 fifties in 119 innings; a record that has only improved as his career has gone on.

Only Bradman (99.94) has a higher career average of those who have played a minimum of 20 Test innings.

Vaughan’s comment, in particular, strikes me as interesting.

This is a man who, it must be remembered, battled during his career the likes of Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar, widely regarded as the two greatest batsmen of his own generation.

Lara was always my own favourite batsman; indeed, I would say that Lara and Kevin Pietersen were the two players that I most admired and enjoyed watching, with the great Vivian Richards a hero from schooldays.

With those more flamboyant players, however, the bowler perhaps felt that he at least had a chance, because there was just a chance – however remote – that outrageous flair would lead to their downfall.

Smith, on the other hand, is more of a machine, as famously was Bradman, churning out runs with frightening consistency, his style more calculating than pleasing on the eye, although it must be said that neither man has surpassed numbers recorded by Lara, holder of the highest individual score in first-class cricket (501 not out) and Test cricket (400 not out).

So, who is better: Smith or Bradman?

One might as well ask: ‘How long is a piece of string?’

Or will it rain at Emerald Headingley on April 12, 2057? (of course it flipping will).

Bradman’s career average, lest we forget, was effectively one-third better than anyone else to have played the game.

On pure statistics, he was unquestionably the greatest batsman that the world has seen; he hit 29 hundreds in 80 Test innings, for heaven’s sake, and 117 in 338 visits to the crease in first-class action.

What can be said is that Smith, statistically, is the best Test batsman since Bradman.

But that takes no account of the quality of bowling, the state of the pitches or anything else for that matter.

My own view is that there is probably not a huge deal of difference between Smith and Virat Kohli of the modern masters, with Kane Williamson in the next bracket down.

The hyperbole that attended Smith’s performance at Edgbaston – not least on social media – was considerable, and it reminded me of how people invariably forget that football was played before the advent of the Premier League in 1992: in other words, there have been some mighty fine batsmen throughout the 142-year history of Test cricket, and it is not all about the here and now, much as some observers would struggle to believe that.

It is literally impossible to say whether Smith was better than Bradman or anyone else because all players are products of their own time and setting.

One can compare sportsmen more accurately across the same era, but contrasting them across different eras is ultimately futile.

As a brief case study, take the example of the former Yorkshire and England batsman Herbert Sutcliffe.

How many of those who took to social media last week extolling Smith will even have heard of Sutcliffe, or considered him among their deliberations when it comes to the greatest batsmen of all-time?

Yet here was a man who scored more than 50,000 first-class runs, who averaged 60 in 54 Tests and who, like Smith, scored two hundreds in an Ashes Test – at Melbourne in 1925.

It is far too easy to jump to knee-jerk conclusions.

Former England captain Vaughan wisely qualified his opinion by saying that Smith is the best Test match batsman that he personally has seen.

Ultimately, that is the only perspective that counts and the one that must inform all such discussions.