By Tom Atkinson
Superlatives and hype have become such a staple of sporting punditry and commentary, that the moment itself rarely equals the vernacular used to describe it. Our ears are subject to a conveyor belt of superlatives like ‘genius’, ‘magician’ and ‘master’. Much to my chagrin, it is not used sparingly for those worthy of such accolades.
Unless you’re Steven Peter Devereux Smith.
I think everyone in the cricket world, and probably a lot more on the fringes, are aware of the circumstances surrounding him approaching the first test in Birmingham. Back from a long suspension usually reserved for people found guilty of doping. Smith hadn’t played a test or first-class match for well over a year. A relentless English crowd, a ball doing plenty and a top order that has a penchant for blowing over with the slightest of zephyrs.
He entered to a cacophony of unanimous booing and left with a standing ovation. His 144 & 142 both rescued Australia’s chances in the first innings, before destroying England’s chances in the second.
He’s the Australian one-man-show.
However, Smith still fiercely divides opinion among cricket followers. From what I’ve browsed on twitter and from what we’ve seen from the crowd, many are not yet prepared to forgive him for the actions that transpired under his watch in South Africa. I’m sure hidden amongst the Edgbaston faithful was (twice convicted ball tamperer) Faf Du Plessis dressed in disguise, booing from behind a newspaper with eye holes cut out in it.
English fans have not minced their words regarding Smith. To them, he’s still a heinous cheat that deserves no accolade due to the unforgivable sandpaper incident. And to be honest, I understand that feeling. Australian fans who may be upset with that view forget that we bullied Murali for his bowling action, and taunted Marcus Tresscothick for his battles with mental health. It should not be us who suddenly clamour for the moral high ground. Australian fans were similarly unforgiving to Stuart Broad, who under no obligation to go against the umpires decision was the target of rampant abuse during the last tour down under. Conversely, Smith served his sentence of being complicit rather than perpetrating. It was a sentence that was gargantuanly more severe than its preceding verdicts in other cases. Considering multiple players - with a significant portion being English - have retroactively admitted to systematic ball tampering, does Smith deserve the barrage of disdain he now receives?
Sports fans do, what sports fans do. Any indictment on their own is overlooked to target the sins of others. Would every Englishman be so forgiving towards say, James Pattinson if he was caught on CCTV violently assaulting a few people in a drunken rampage? Would your garden variety Australian applaud a Virat Kohli century after he was suspended for cheating? We love our own and hate the rest. It makes me wonder if Smith will ever win back the appreciation of the cricketing public abroad. Personal opinion and collective fan thinking aside, this is where those superlatives apply most sincerely to Smith.
We will argue back and forth about his legacy due to Sandpaper-gate.
Fans will attack him, defend him, crucify and praise him. Meanwhile, he verges on the best-since-Bradman status if not there already. He will continue to score mighty tons amidst the noise.
Not just any tons…Genius, magical, and masterful ones.
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