Steve Smith: Rising from the Ashes

A little over a year ago, Steve Smith’s emotional press conference after the ball-tampering scandal was the defining image of Australian cricket’s dramatic fall from grace. But in the first Ashes Test at the beginning of August, the batsman, scoring two centuries, looked almost embarrassed with the praise directed by the Aussie fans.

Steve Smith has 25 Test hundreds in 120 innings. Only six Australia batsmen have more Test centuries now.   -  Reuters

Shortly after Steve Smith had gatecrashed England's World Cup honeymoon with centuries in both innings of the first Ashes Test in Birmingham, a video of the premier batsman walking back to the dressing room attracted thousands of views, showing him almost embarrassed with the praise directed by the Aussie fans.

It was a welcome change for a man who just a year back showed an outpouring of grief — drowned in a frenzy of righteous indignation and media frenzy — at an emotional press conference on his arrival back from Johannesburg after the ball-tampering scandal in the South Africa Test series. It became the defining image of Australian cricket’s dramatic fall from grace. A batsman, whose defence England found impossible to breach at Edgbaston, was then defeated by his unbridled emotions.

He was put on a pedestal for his insatiable appetite, manifested in 6,199 Test runs and 23 hundreds at an astronomical average of 61.37 before the ill-fated incident in Cape Town. From the euphoria and exultation, he was brought down to earth after accepting publicly that tampering with the ball was something planned by the team’s on-field leadership group.

Stripped of the national captaincy in all three formats, Smith lost his national contract. He was banned from any leadership role for two years and was restricted from playing international cricket or Australian domestic cricket for 12 months.

During his time away from the game, Smith featured in the Global T20 Canada, the Caribbean Premier League, Sydney Grade Cricket and the Bangladesh Premier League, the last in which he suffered an elbow injury that, by his admission, made him “lose his love for the sport at one point.”

Smith underwent elbow surgery, which had ruined his hopes of an international comeback in March in the series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates. In a brace for six weeks following the operation, he was eventually cleared to return in the early stages of the Indian Premier League for the Rajasthan Royals.

(From left) David Warner, Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft, the three men at the centre of the ball-tampering scandal on Australia’s South Africa tour in 2018.   -  Getty Images


IPL return

On February 28 this year, less than two weeks before the start of the Indian Premier League, Smith posted a video of him batting in the indoor nets at the Cricket New South Wales headquarters at the Sydney Cricket Ground. He had only on that same day had a brace removed from his elbow that he had been wearing since mid-January. “Great to have my first hit back today. The elbow is feeling good!” Smith wrote on his Instagram channel.

One could now sense his impatience, the stirring earnestness and the poignancy of his skill coming to the fore as Smith hurtled towards the end of his exile, collecting 319 runs from 12 IPL matches with three fifties. The IPL for Smith wasn’t as much about slugging it out in the middle as much as it was about redemption for one man who was not long ago held responsible for bringing infamy to Australian cricket.

READ | Ashes 2019: Archer hasn't actually got me out – returning Steve Smith's reminder

“He faced and dealt with the lessons, emotions and disappointment in a very mature and positive way, and I feel it has left him a much better leader for it,” says Paddy Upton, who returned as head coach of the Rajasthan Royals this year. “It did take him a little while (in the IPL) to find his rhythm. This was exacerbated by dealing with an elbow injury and accompanying restricted movement. I won’t be surprised if we see him very soon return to, for some time, being one of the best batsmen in the world. It’s happening already.”

“I wouldn’t so much say it was Smith’s win-at-all-costs attitude that had him pay the price – it emerged that it was the entire Australian cricket system’s win-at-all-costs attitude. Smith was swept along with this, even though he might not have agreed with some of the behaviours, he still went with it,” said Upton.

The Aussie way

In a two-part series on former Australian captain Ricky Ponting, released by ABC TV in 2013, current Aussie head coach Justin Langer reflects on the responsibilities of an Australian cricket captain: “To be an Australian cricket captain, not only do you have to be the best player but you also have to be a model citizen...a role model not only for wider Australia but for his teammates.”

Smith had failed to lead by example. It was poor judgement on part of the 30-year-old that had ultimately led to the nightmare in Newlands. Darren Lehmann as coach indeed believed that Australian teams played best when they were uninhibitedly aggressive, even unpleasant. That behaviour, however, came less naturally to members of this team than it did to the teams led by Steve Waugh and Ponting. While the likes of David Warner were inherently aggressive, the others in the squad seemed to ape the behaviour because they were approved, and not because they were driven by their instincts to do so.

Telling knocks

In the last 10 years – between August 2009 and August 2019 – Australia has played 110 Tests, winning 55 – only England (57) has won more matches in that period. The decade also coincides with Steve Smith's emergence. Since making his Test debut against Pakistan at Lord's on July 13, 2010, Smith has 25 Test hundreds in 120 innings. He has scored 17 centuries in a winning cause – the most by batsman.

Hundreds in winning causes

Steve Smith573,90884.9517
Alaistar Cook884,47255.9014
Hashim Amla703,86263.3113
Joe Root603,52464.0713
David Warner733,58651.2213
Cheteshwar Pujara633,50662.6012

Unnecessary aggression

Wicketkeeping great Ian Healy has in the past expressed concern over the way the current crop of Australian cricketers go about expressing themselves on the field. “I believe Australia has played with excessive aggression in recent years. It is a sign of a lack of confidence in their skills,” Healy had remarked before adding: “Mental aggression is needed in sport, not so much physical and verbal.”

READ | The Australia ball-tampering scandal one year on

Nevertheless, the social and cultural ramifications of the ball-tampering incident dawned on Smith as he fronted a packed press conference at the Sydney airport. “I just want to say I’m sorry for the pain that I’ve brought to Australia and the fans and the public. It’s devastating and I’m truly sorry. I hope in time I can earn back respect and forgiveness. I’ve been so privileged and honoured to represent my country and captain the Australian cricket team. Cricket is the greatest game in the world. It’s been my life, and I hope it can be again. I’m sorry and I’m devastated.”

“The main qualities that come to mind were his passion for sport and his inner drive to do his best no matter what the scenario,” says Matthew Robinson, head teacher for personal development, health and physical education at Menai High School, Smith’s alma mater. “I remember when he was 13 years old at school in a PE class and he was one of the most competitive students I had ever come across. He always played fairly, gave everything he had and continually demonstrated a willingness to improve.”

Healy describes Smith as an “'introverted, calculated and private” person. He feels Smith has spent many hours professionally and/or personally getting ready to deal with such a loss of face. Strong team bonds were a great place to start.

There’s some weight to that observation. Big campaigns like the World Cup and Ashes provide high profile opportunities for players to show their mettle, and, as in Smith’s case, redeem themselves even. In any case, Smith’s prowess as a batsman was never in doubt. Although some may call a return of 379 runs from 10 matches in England, modest returns by Smith’s lofty standards, it was evident that the time away from the game had not added rust to the skilled practitioner’s batting.

Not new to controversies

But it’s the Sydney lad’s conduct as skipper that has tended to land him in a soup. In 2017, a major row erupted after India beat Australia in the second Test in Bengaluru to draw level in the four-Test series.

The then Australian skipper Smith was seen looking at the dressing room for an indication whether to go for a review after he was declared leg before against Umesh Yadav. Smith was seen lingering on and the umpire touched his shoulder, indicating that he should be on his way not having called for a review.

At the post-match press conference, Smith called it a “brain fade” and said: “I was looking at our boys and shouldn’t have done that.” India captain Virat Kohli would later go on to claim he had seen Australia’s players look to the dressing room for review advice on two occasions earlier in the match.

So yes, Smith is immensely talented, tiringly disciplined, but occasionally controversial, and when you are captaining a side, even the slightest of transgressions are viewed with a magnifying glass.

Steve Smith, speaking at a press conference at the Sydney airport, accepted full responsibility for the ball-tampering scandal.   -  AFP


Support from opponents

There are a few similarities between Kohli and Smith. Both are 30. Both are outstanding batsmen of their respective teams. Both have led at the highest level, but while Kohli continues to be the leader in all three formats, Smith’s fallen out of favour. “If Steve wants to be the captain again, I’m happy for that to happen. He was only really found guilty of lazy captaincy and lost a year for it. Not realising that your team is tired and off the rails, or realising it but not doing enough to get them back together was his crime. He will be better if he does take the job again and redemption is good,” Healy feels.

READ | Ashes: Australia star Steve Smith set to return after concussion

And yet it was Kohli who was upset when a section of the Indian fans booed Steve Smith during the World Cup match at the Oval and gesticulated to the crowd that Smith should be cheered instead. “I feel for him. Look, we have had a few incidents in the past, we have had our arguments, but now he is coming back. I noticed this in the IPL too that he was keen to play and there were some incidents. It happened today too (fans booing) and I felt bad for him. I went and apologised to him on behalf of the crowd,” Kohli said when asked about the incident.

It certainly helped with Smith’s reintegration into the Australian fold that a contemporary — and the poster boy of Indian cricket — Kohli threw his weight behind him allaying concerns about a rather hostile reception after spending 12 months on the sidelines.

The chorus of boos from the Birmingham crowd, however, was a constant feature during Smith’s comeback innings. Yet he blurred it all out, “white noise” he called it, and continued doing what he does best: score runs.

No way past his defence

“Players had difficulty getting him out when he was 15 years old, and it is great to see the world’s best players still have trouble! For the majority of school games that Steve played, he was always very influential with both his batting and bowling,” Smith’s PE teacher Robinson remarks.

Smith’s grinding knock of 144 off 219 balls pulled Australia out of trouble to a respectable 284 after being eight down for 122 on the opening day of the first Ashes Test. While Smith’s batting may not be pleasing to the eye as Kohli’s, it is just as effective. His ability to read the situation perfectly, dedication, discipline and a nagging penchant for perfection, bordering obsession, meant the England bowlers were left in the lurch.

Most Ashes hundreds

Steve Smith is already an Ashes behemoth, having amassed 10 hundreds against arch-rival England. He is third only to Donald Bradman (19) and Jack Hobbs (12).

Don Bradman635,02819
Jack Hobbs713,63612
Steve Smith442,40410
Steve Waugh723,17310

But at Lord’s, Smith's batting gained a mortal quality. Against the express pace of Jofra Archer, those deft deflections and crisp cover drives became less frequent as the focus switched to survival instead of domination. Archer’s spell was visceral. In one over on day three, his slowest delivery was 88mph and his fastest 96mph. It wasn't subtle attacking, it was naked aggression. He kept going at Smith. And the more he did, a more “human” Smith surfaced.

And when he copped a pacy short ball on the forearm from the last delivery of the 71st over, Smith’s zen-like calm was invaded. But he swallowed the pain and carried on until six overs later, he was hit again, this time on the unprotected part of the neck. After a series of on-field tests, Smith retired hurt and walked off to warm applause only to return again at the fall of Peter Siddle — battered and bruised but not beaten. He drilled two back-to-back boundaries off Chris Woakes before finally being adjudged leg before on 92. Doggedness is not the hallmark of greatness, but it is a requirement, and Smith displayed it in abundance.

Smith has 25 Test hundreds in 120 innings. Only six Australia batsmen have more Test centuries now. He has 10 Ashes tons in 44 innings, and is third only to Don Bradman (19) and Jack Hobbs (12). This is all the more remarkable when you consider he didn’t score a Test century until his 12th Test. Since his debut in 2010, Smith has struck 17 Test hundreds in winning causes at a mind-boggling average of 84.95.

“We’ve got to find a way to get him out,” was English seamer Chris Woakes’ assessment at Edgbaston. The only problem, though, was that England just couldn’t get him out. Bat in the air, head down, you could nearly see the weight being lifted off Smith’s shoulders when he reached his hundred and set Australia on course for victory.

“I love the game of cricket, I love entertaining young kids, I love kids wanting to play the great game of cricket that I love,” Smith had said in the aftermath of Sandpaper gate. A year later, fans around the world are watching with gaping mouths as he bends the opposition resolve to his will.