20 August 2019

Steve Smith Feels Great, or the Follies of Lords

There were all sorts of problems with the headlines lauding the brave and valiant Steve Smith, many of them to do with the valorisation of toughness over brain tissue, but for me the glaring one was not that it’s the wrong message, but that it’s the wrong descriptor. “Brave” is when you don’t want to do something but do it anyway. Steve Smith wanted to do something very badly and was intolerant of anything and anyone who tried to stop him. I wouldn’t call him brave any more than I would call a Terminator “brave”.

Usually when a players is injured, you see two pains on their face: the physical pain and then the pain of realising that they might have to go off. When Steve Smith was hit on the arm, there was the physical pain, and then seven stages of annoyance: that he made the error, that he wouldn’t be able to play as well as he wanted to, that time was being wasted, that he wouldn’t be able to play as well as he wanted to, that people would pester him about going off, that he wouldn’t be able to play as well as he wanted to, and then maybe, just maybe, a tiny flicker of annoyance around the edge or back of his mind at the fact that he may “have to” go off. Because he must on some level know that’s a thing, right? Because it kind of looked like he didn’t.

And then he gets knocked off his feet by a ball hitting his neck at over 140 km/hr and the routine starts up again, a routine that is fuelled by a delusion: that if you will it hard enough, you can make it so that nothing has happened. And then, beneath the delusion, a kind of psychosis: a belief that what has happened has, in fact, not happened. “I Feel Great”, says the man with a head injury and what looks like a broken arm. A bit later, there was a moment where he seemed to believe that maybe, just maybe, being given out LBW when you were out LBW was not a “have to” go off situation. That maybe what happened had not, in fact, happened.

It was madness, and I feel like the core terror and fascination of this day, and the reason it will go down as the day that cemented his greatness as a Figure of the game and not just a Champion is because it was the day on which we beheld the naked face of the personal madness of Steve Smith. “Madness” isn’t really a thing, in any scientific sense. I don’t mean mental illness or concussion. We know now he was concussed when he was hit on the head, however delayed the symptoms, and lord knows any of us can have various degrees of mental illness and maybe sportspeople especially so, but above or beyond or beside any of that—and it was there before he was hit on the head—was something so personal and peculiar and powerful, and so removed from the real and the rational, that I can’t think of a better word than madness.

Some might say that “mad” is Smith’s brand. The fidgets and rituals, the unorthodox style, the time in the nets that goes beyond obsession to something like fixation. When people talk about Steve Smith as a “freak”, they are referring to things that anyone could see from the numbers on the page without knowing the person, but the word does double duty as a reference to his personal freakishness, because greatness is never just about the results on the page, but the presence of the person who gets them and the way they get them. Anything you can refer to as a brand though is far too manageable to be madness. This was a glimpse of a monster both appalling and touching, because what was the face of that monster, sitting in the stands? A stony-faced boy at the dinner table who has been made to come in from play.

There was a shift in the perception of Smith after the first test, where the edges of his personhood started to blur around the edges into something more and less than human in an attempt represent something that went beyond extraordinary. Steve Waugh compared him to a computer—“It’s like he analyses every ball, and it’s like a computer: he spits out the answer.” Commentators didn’t talk about personal and technical flaws when addressing the question of “how to get Steve Smith out” but arranged data into various clusters of points to try to crack that code and get inside the matrix. To say that Archer’s answer to the “how to get Steve Smith out” question came as a jolt back to reality is an understatement. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object? It makes a horrible sound.

At the end of that day of the Lords test it was like everyone was dazed from a series of blows and wired on adrenaline, but the difference between the rest of us and Steve Smith was that we knew something had very much happened, even if it wasn’t entirely clear what. We absorbed all of the reality and gravity that Smith could not seem to see or accept. After every extraordinary match you ask yourself: what have I just seen, what just happened? It’s like they stretch the bounds of what is possible and comprehensible and this time it went beyond the physical to the two great Beyonds themselves flashing before our eyes: Death and Madness.
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