It turns out that Steve Smith is, in fact, fallible.
His dismissal for 27 in the second innings at Hobart meant that, for the first time since 2017, he would end a Test with an average below 60, and while his current marker of 59.87 is still the fifth-best of all time, with a cut-off of 2,000 runs, it’s the continuation of a trend that has gone on for long enough to become a genuine worry for Australia.
A man who dominated the 2017/18 and 2019 Ashes series, making three hundreds and averaging north of 100 in each, ends the 2021/22 edition with an average of 30.5, and no hundreds to his name.
He managed a mere 244 runs in this series, having made 774 runs in the 2019 Ashes, and 687 in 2017/18, but this isn’t purely an Ashes phenomenon, a one-off blip in the career of an Australia great. They are part of a pattern. Smith’s 2019 Ashes exploits seemingly confirmed that Sandpapergate had left his genius untouched. Only four players have scored more runs in an Ashes series, this despite Smith missing three innings due to concussion. But since then, Smith has scored just 811 runs at 36.86 with only one hundred in 14 Tests.
This downward turn becomes even more surprising given the fact that he has played all his games at home in that period. His home average was 77.25 until his current blip. It has since dropped nearly 15 points, now sitting at at 62.91 (below Kane Williamson’s 65.31).
Since the end of that Ashes, a number of players have outshone him at the world stage. Leading that list is none other than his team-mate Marnus Labuschagne, proving that batting in Australia hasn’t suddenly become a minefield. For players with minimum 10 Tests since the Ashes 2019, Marnus has the best average at 69.04. In fact, Smith is bettered by all the three other Fab Four players: Williamson (61.61 in that period), Joe Root (54.17), and even Virat Kohli (39.12).
For an ordinary player, a stretch averaging 36.86 would be unremarkable. Indeed, for his English opponents, Root excepted, it is something to aspire to. But Smith’s peak was so high and went on for so long, that it marks a dramatic drop-off. From the game in which he scored his first hundred until the end of the 2019 Ashes, Smith averaged 73.02, meaning his runs have dropped off by almost exactly half.
What is behind this relative rut is unclear. Smith has nursed back and elbow injuries, both of which could have affected his batting. This series, Smith has been dismissed by the ball which moved away on a few occasions, while also less infallible on his stumps than he has been in the past. A strangle down the leg-side fulfilled a long-held England plan that he can be caught off balls on his hip. He might just be out of form, or he could be beginning to decline. Smith’s technique was reckoned by some to be one which depended significantly on hand-eye coordination, and so if something is slightly out of place, it could explain his struggles.
Of course, it’s too early to write Smith off. He still contributed to Australia’s series win with a 93 at Adelaide to set up his side’s only 400-plus total, even skippering the side with Pat Cummins self-isolating. But for the first time in a long time, a Smith century doesn’t feel inevitable each time he bats.