It’s fun to look back over Devereux’s rapid rise to greatness, if only because of how mental it all was. In early 2013 he was still largely considered a laughing stock, a failed legspinner who had been picked in the 2010/11 Ashes largely on account of his ability to ‘lighten the mood’. At this stage only die-hard Sheffield Shield aficionados and Pune Warrior fanboys knew any better. By the end of 2013, after solid performances in India and England and a century in Perth, opinions began to shift. A century in the 2014 New Year’s Test at the SCG confirmed his ascendancy. By the end of that year he was a fixture in the Australian ODI team. By the end of 2015, he was Australian Test captain and the number one ranked batsman in Test cricket.
Indeed his rise has been so rapid, so bizarre, that we have been prepared on occasion to excuse those who have refused to acknowledge the blatant evidence of the man’s greatness, even as it bludgeons them repeatedly between the eyes. Once, perhaps, but no more. There are simply no longer any grounds for doubting that Steven Peter Devereux Smith is the greatest Test batsman of the modern age. His freakish statistical record stands alone amongst contemporary batsman. Runs against all opposition, runs in every nation. Any attempt to counter that with a ‘but…’, or an ‘except…’ is pure churlishness, nothing more. And yet, curiously, people still try.
Mostly we imagine this stems from the chest thumping nationalism that seems to drive all modern debate on international cricket. Indian, English and Kiwi fans don’t want to accept another batsman is better than their best. Particularly not an Australian batsman. With the statistical record now falling so heavily in Devereux’s favor, new angles of attack need to be employed to support their claims and it is here that the magical moving goalposts appear.
One particularly common approach, taking lead from Donald Trump and climate change skeptics the world over, is to try and manipulate the statistical data until it says what people want it to say, i.e. Devereux is not nearly as good as the raw stats might suggest. In much the same way that Voges’ career average is disparaged by his many, many, critics, Devereux’s Test average, which is now well over 60 after 50 Tests, is argued to have been artificially inflated, and is therefore meaningless. The fatal weakness of this approach is it still doesn’t provide any clear evidence that Devereux is worse than his peers. Joe Root has played ten Tests against Australia in England, where he averages 47. Devereux has played the same number in England, and averages 47.38. Virat Kohli has played seven Tests against Australia at home, and averages 33, Devereux has played five Tests in India, and averages 59. Devereux is better in the home conditions of those batsmen who are supposed to be better than him. Furthermore, these are Tests Australia mostly lost, usually by large margins, so it couldn’t even be argued he was scoring his runs against weaker bowling attacks.
The only way to try and counter this evidence is to remove innings wholesale. His 215 at Lords, for instance, doesn’t ‘count’ because the pitch was flat (never mind that Root scored just 18 runs in that Test), nor do any of the runs made in Australia or against attacks that are considered ‘sub-par’. The end goal in this approach is to strip Devereux’s career of all these meaningless runs he has scored (over 5,000 of them now), and argue that his real Test average must instead be calculated from, say, the four innings he played in the third and fourth Tests of the 2015 Ashes. In which he scored a total of 26 runs. It’s like arguing that Root’s career can only be considered in terms of his performances in Australia in 2013, where he averaged 27, or Kohli in England, where he averages 13. The remaining Devereux skeptics at large in the world have to take this approach because he otherwise lacks a suitably equivalent blackspot in his career with which to target him. His lowest overseas Test average is 41 in Sri Lanka. The next lowest is that 47 in England. Kohli averages less than 40 in four countries: Bangladesh, England, Sri Lanka, and the West Indies. Root in three: Bangladesh, Australia and New Zealand.
With the statistical rug pulled from beneath their feet, the Devereux skeptics have another ace up their sleeve: aesthetics. This is a factor which is much harder to quantify, although if we ever did invent a means to measure it, no doubt the Romford Recorder would immediately steal it. But even this is a useless argument. Aesthetics by themselves are rather pointless when the aim of cricket is to score runs. And takes wickets. And bag lucrative OLED TV sponsorship contracts. If how Devereux bats works, saying it not aesthetically pleasing equals the square root of bugger all.
This line of attack was championed mostly when it was assumed Devereux’s unorthodox approach would inevitably lead to his undoing. It is still the favorite yardstick used by those who believe he should only be judged on his performances on English green tops. Under heavy cloud. When Australia have been asked to bat first. But Devereux’s technique has not proved his undoing, instead it has allowed him to flourish in overseas conditions far better than any of his peers, as pointed out above. His technique works because it allows him to adapt. If it looks awkward because it is unconventional, it won’t stay that way for long; hordes of junior cricketers are adopting his, and to an equal extent AB de Villiers’, approach. Peter Handscomb is just one who has seen success by adopting a very Devereux like stance at the crease. If cricketers, and administrations, were to ignore Devereux’s technique simply on the grounds of how it looks, than that is their loss. With the pace with which cricket is evolving, they’ll likely just be left behind.
Naturally we hardly expect such lines of reasoning to change anyone’s opinion. If by now you still don’t rate Devereux, logic will have very little to do with it. You might be on firmer ground arguing against Devereux being the greatest overall batsman of the modern era, but even then he’s hardly a slouch in ODI and T20 cricket either. But as far as Tests go, there are no caveats worth mentioning left. Although given that this is an Ashes year, we doubt that will stop anyone trying to invent some. We’ve already started preparing a bomb shelter built of empty gin bottles in preparedness for that. Donations welcome of course. Although we’d prefer to do the emptying ourselves.