“Bradman. Bowled Hollies. Nought.” The disbelief in John Arlott’s voice was palpable. “Bowled Hollies. Nought,” he said again, as if to confirm to himself what he had just been tasked with describing. “What do you say in these circumstances?” The greatest there ever was or will be departed the ground with the gasometer, his final innings for Australia, for a second ball duck some four runs short of what could be generalised as batting perfection.
Some 44 days ago, it was in front of the stand named after Hollies at Edgbaston that Steve Smith started stitching together an Ashes campaign that inevitably led observers, however reluctantly, back to comparisons of one man. Given the statistical outlier of Mr 99.94, this always needs to be done with caution. But across these weeks Smith has progressed from a run-monger with baggage to something entirely different. Just as it was for Don Bradman, every performance now attracts fascination. Just as for Arlott in 1948, nobody quite believed it when Smith was dismissed at the same ground for 80.
That this was where Smith made his breakthrough Test century some six summers ago, and another in 2015, added to all this. If the 2013 ton signalled his arrival as a serious player, the other was his last before graduating to the captaincy. His 100 innings since that day in 2013 have netted 6330 runs at an average of 74. More Bradmanesque again are the 26 centuries, remembering that Bradman made 29 in 80 hits. All of this in the least productive era for batsmen since the 1950s.
The great outlier’s name was all over the numbers that sat before Smith in terms of runs scored in a single Ashes. When on 17, Smith passed his own haul from 2017-18. On 63 he knocked off Herb Sutcliffe’s 734 from 1924-25. Bradman’s 758 in 1934 remains seven away; the 974 from 1930 is now by any measure out of range. But 751 at 125 is a mark all on its own, not inflated by a drop of red ink. On other measures, to pick but a couple, Smith has top scored in every innings he’s played and has amassed more than double the runs of England’s two topscorers – Ben Stokes and Rory Burns – put together.
But let’s take a deep breath and forget all of that. What’s more important than these benchmarks? How it feels. Cricket might be a numbers-obsessed game but the special sauce comes from more than spreadsheets. That’s why Smith now, despite being only marginally more prolific than he was in the 2017-18 Ashes, is so much more captivating. So when he played and missed early – a couple of times – there was a sense that this would be as close as the home side would get. CricViz bolstered that sense by noting that by their wicket probability index, he should have been dismissed 17 times in the series on the basis of the balls he has received, not five. This must be how it was watching Bradman.
One new hurdle he had to clear came in the form of a fellow short in stature but big in output, Sam Curran. It beggars belief that this is the first southpaw seamer England have used in each of these two dominant series, as Smith played and missed early before giving an untaken chance to the cordon on 66. But watching him troubleshoot in real time – getting even further across his stumps than usual – pointed to him being more than just a freak with perfect coordination. Here, he identified a new risk and set about mitigating it. This tallies with Bradman’s comparative advantage - placement through the field. It’s the same for Smith, manipulating whatever Joe Root sets him. It’s what makes him a different beast.
Of course, wickets fell around him as has been the case more often than not, but after Curran picked up two in two balls Smith powered into the 70s with a knowing square drive, ready to lift Australia to something nearing credibility as he did in Birmingham and Brisbane and so many other times. It’s what made his demise – finally missing a straight one when clipping – all the harder to believe. Every commentator was as shocked as Arlott all those decades ago.
In 1930 at this ground, it was on a wet wicket that Douglas Jardine, after the fact, saw something in Bradman’s response to short bowling that governed the strategy against the entire team in the summer of 1932-33. His fate, it was fairly concluded, would dictate that of his team. It’s bound to be the case that whatever Australia are asked to chase, that principle will be the same. And not that he will need the added motivation, but Smith has never made a ton in the fourth innings of a Test.