Steve Smith is Back and It’s Like He Never Left

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Steve Smith is Back and It’s Like He Never Left

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

You can see Steve Smith’s one-year ban from cricket as karma in action, or you can look at it another way: He served a year away from cricket because a few reasonably unintelligent men wanted to make a demonstration of their sanctimony. A decision pandering entirely to irrationally-founded public outrage ended up wasting one whole year of a generational talent at the absolute peak of his prowess; all for a transgression more common in cricket than people care to admit.

What must it be that kept Smith going during his time away? Could it be a rage against the unfair treatment meted out to him? Or perhaps a slightly repentant introspection of his own actions? Or a sheer desire to rise once again to the highest pantheon after falling to the absolute depths of humiliation? By his own admission, there came a point where he very nearly fell out of love with the game. But thankfully, for Australia and the fans who love to watch him bat, he hung on. And on Thursday at Edgbaston in the Ashes 2019 opener, he made his glorious return to the Test team in a picture-perfect homecoming. 

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Batting on 99, Smith drove a temptingly pitched up delivery from his Rajasthan Royals teammate Ben Stokes.

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Against the backdrop of a hostile English crowd, Smith essayed an innings of a lifetime, single-handedly lifting his team from a giant pit and firmly putting them in the driver’s seat. Every run off Smith’s bat drilled a hole through the wave of abuse sent his way by the crowd at Edgbaston, who clearly overestimated their ability to unsettle a man on a road to redemption.

Fast-forward a couple of days and Smith once again was fronting a rescue mission, this time against a sizable run deficit in the hope to put on some runs for the Australian bowling to defend. Surely he was not going to repeat his day one exploits, or was he? Well, not only did Smith steer Australia on a path of safety but in compiling the second hundred on the Test, he managed to break the English spirits, which now makes their task to save the Test in a rearguard action incredibly difficult. 

In both the innings, Smith walked in to bat with Australia two-down for a meagre total on board. It is not the most unfamiliar territory to him. Playing away from home in particular, he has had to walk in much sooner than any middle-order batsman would like. Smith knows exactly what is needed of him in these situations. There is hardly anyone better at weathering a storm. Despite the English pacers testing Smith’s resolve and coming close to breaching his defence, he remained unflustered. He toiled and toiled more. He survived and survived more. He batted and batted more, while all around him, the rest of the Australian batting continued to flounder and perish.

Playing away from home in particular, Smith has had to walk in much sooner than any middle order batsman would like

Post lunch on Day One, a riveting spell of fast bowling from Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes saw Australia find themselves eight-down for 122. From that point, Smith forged two partnerships worth their weight in absolute gold and the team amassed another 162 runs. Smith toyed with everything the English threw at him, forced consistent changes in field setting, and left the bowlers bruised. Smith had already done this once to England in another Ashes opener at Brisbane in 2017. In many ways, this was déjà vu for Broad & Co. But they cannot be blamed for the lack of trying, for they literally exhausted themselves of all reserves.

Batting on 99, Smith drove a temptingly pitched up delivery from his Rajasthan Royals teammate Ben Stokes. As the ball beat the in-field, Smith knew it was heading for the fence and burst into an emotional celebration. He was elated, and so was the Australian dressing room. The English crowd persisted with their jibes, but they knew Smith had triumphed. Deep down, they were hurting, and the audacious strokeplay from Smith’s bat that followed for the final phase of his innings only compounded their frustrations.

The finest element of this knock however was restraint, something that characterises Smith’s batting at large. He has an overpowering resolve to resist the temptation of asserting his authority over the opposition. Time and again, he has refrained from playing his shots while the bowlers are running in at full steam. He waits, he absorbs, he calculates. And then when he hits, he hurts. This feels even more impressive when one factors in that Smith is an out-and-out modern-day batsman with a wide array of shots — some of which seem absolutely ridiculous to even try but he has mastered.

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Adverse conditions, an intimidating crowd, a world-class bowling attack operating at their best, and a batting collapse to steady. But Smith conquered each challenge with the same nonchalance that we were so used to.

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But Smith or literally any other man in his position would have been excused for wishing for a smoother passage to return to Test cricket. A Brisbane or a Perth. Even an Abu Dhabi or a Rajkot would do. Edgbaston however, would certainly be the last on anyone’s list. These conditions are as English as England can get. But perhaps this was essential for Smith to be able to hit back his levels straightaway. 

Adverse conditions, an intimidating crowd, a world-class bowling attack operating at their best, and a batting collapse to steady. The task at hand could not have been more demanding. But Smith conquered each challenge with the same nonchalance that we were so used to. It was almost as if he had never left. His dominance felt even more familiar in the second innings against a dispirited attack on a pitch having lost its flavour. 

As Smith completed the second innings hundred with another captivating cover drive, a thrilled Nasser Hussain in the commentary box declared, the “redemption is well and truly complete”. Hussain’s words immortalised one of the greatest individual performances over the course of a Test match even ignoring the weight of context it came under.

The three centuries Smith had scored in England prior to this series had all come on relatively better wickets. Dominating England on a “proper” seaming surface against the moving ball therefore remained unchecked. But not anymore. And regardless of how The Ashes pans out over the next few weeks, this innings will have its place locked in history. Those present at Edgbaston will keep recounting their tales of this knock; some astonishingly, whereas a few others exasperatingly. But recount it they definitely will.

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