If Bradman was unbelievable, so is Smith

Updated: Sep 19, 2019, 08:27 IST | Clayton Murzello | Mumbai

Australian Steve Smith, who scored 774 runs in the recent Ashes series, has Sir Don Bradman for company in cricket's believe-it-or-not gallery

Australia's Steve Smith raises his bat as he leaves the ground after being dismissed for 82 on Day Four of the Manchester Test on September 7. Pic/Getty Images
Australia's Steve Smith raises his bat as he leaves the ground after being dismissed for 82 on Day Four of the Manchester Test on September 7. Pic/Getty Images

Clayton MurzelloCricket fans can now associate the figure 774 (the number of runs Sunil Gavaskar scored in his debut Test series against the West Indies in 1971) to another player. Let's say, another fine batsman — Australia's Steven Smith.

Like Smith, who scored the same number of runs in the recently-concluded Ashes series, the little Indian reached his 774-run tally in four Tests. Gavaskar missed the first Test of that series in Kingston due to a finger injury while Smith didn't play in Leeds after copping a hit on the neck from a Jofra Archer delivery in the second Test at Lord's. Lord Relator, the Trinidadian calypsonian, compared Gavaskar to a wall and sang, "We couldn't out Gavaskar at all, not at all." In Smith's case, the pundits in England ran out of adjectives to describe his batting.

Although Smith fell 200 runs short of Don Bradman's record tally of 974, he went past The Don's 758, plundered in the 1934 series against England and averaged 110.57 as against Bradman's 94.75. The only time the English bowlers were able to dismiss Smith below a score of 80 was in his final innings of the Ashes series — for 23 — after offering a catch to Ben Stokes at leg gully off Stuart Broad. The New South Welshman, the most vilified man in cricket until recently for his role in the ball tampering in South Africa, passed his stiffest test — to succeed in a traditional battle in the old enemy's backyard.

In the end, Smith was as honest as his toil. "I've given it my all since I've been here, the last four and a half months and every Test match that we've played. I didn't have much left to give today, I'm pretty cooked to be honest, mentally and physically," he told the media at the conclusion of the drawn series — a 2-2 Ashes scoreline for the first time since Ian Chappell and Ray Illingworth shared the honours in 1972.

Let's now talk about Bradman in 1934, the first Ashes battle after the Bodyline series of 1932-33. He provided readers of his celebrated autobiography, Farewell to Cricket, an idea of his health while travelling to England: "Of our boat journey to England in 1934 I have little to say, because throughout the period I was attempting to regain some of the joy of living which goes with perfect health."

Yet, he started the tour with a double century against Worcestershire at New Road followed by 65 against Leicestershire. The next three innings were unrewarding… bowled for a duck by Cambridge University off-spinner Jack Davies, 5 v MCC and 37 v Oxford University. Another duck came against Hampshire and a century and 77 against Middlesex and Surrey respectively didn't give rise to a mountain of runs. Bradman could manage only 133 runs in the first three Tests.

At Nottingham, he suffered a thigh injury while tripping over a rope as he sprinted to the Trent Bridge pavilion after Australia achieved a 238-run win. A throat infection thwarted him as well and he was just not his normal self. At Lord's, in the second Test, he decided to attack the bowling and what a way he did — 14 runs off one over from Essex paceman Ken Farnes (who had him caught behind in the second innings at Nottingham) and three boundaries off formidable left-arm spinner Hedley Verity. However, the Yorkshireman got Bradman caught and bowled for 36, a cameo which came off 37 balls. Celebrated writer Neville Cardus resorted to hyperbole in his report and felt the innings was greater than Bradman's 334 at Leeds in 1930. "Melodramatic" was how Bradman described Cardus for that flamboyant bit of journalism as England won their first Test against Australia at Lord's since 1896.

Fortunes at the crease changed for Australia's vice-captain in the fourth Test at Headingley, a happy hunting ground for Bradman and the Yorkshire crowd was treated to a classy 304 in 425 minutes. He returned to the dressing room with his muscles playing all kinds of tricks on him. His teammates had to help him undress and he was placed on the massage table immediately. Bradman's physical worries didn't end there. A thigh muscle tear while fielding forced him to be admitted to a nursing home and he didn't play a first-class game before the series finale at The Oval. At the London venue, Bradman scored 244 while putting on a world record 451 runs for the second wicket with Bill Ponsford, who in Bradman's words, played a "grand innings" of 266.

The Ashes were in the balance at 1-1, but England were never going to win after Australia scored 701. A 77 off 106 balls in the second innings brought the curtains down on a rags-to-riches Test run show for The Don. If that was dramatic, what followed was traumatic for the great Australian. As he was packing up to go home, he fell ill again.

Diagnosed with appendicitis, he needed immediate surgery, performed even before his teammates learnt about the turn of events. His wife Jessie embarked on her five-week journey to England as rumours about her husband's death surfaced.

The obituaries were composed, proof-read and very nearly published from the newspaper offices at Fleet Street. But his all-time great spinner teammate Bill O'Reilly wrote in 'Tiger': "Of course, we all knew now that Don Bradman, although he was certainly very sick at the time, subsequently became one of the few people privileged to read his own obituary." Fortunately, Bradman recovered from his illness which his biographer Irving Rosenwater called, "the hardest innings of his career."

Back to Smith. What is harder to comprehend — his 774 runs in the recent Test series or Bradman scoring 625 in three innings towards the end of the 1934 Ashes? Tough one, that. Let's just call both feats unbelievable.

mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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