When Steven Peter Devereux Smith walked out to bat on day one of the first Test against England, no one would have imagined what was going to transpire that day and the next four to follow. This was not just another Test match, it was the first of the Ashes series, considered the holy grail of cricket by players from both countries. It also was not an ideal setting for someone who had just returned to Test cricket after a hiatus of 15 months.
One wonders what was on his mind as he walked towards the 22-yards. He had just watched his mate David Warner being mocked by a ‘sandpaper’ sendoff by discourteous English fans.
Edgbaston was under a cloud cover and the scoreboard read 17 for 2 with English seamers dominating. Coming back after a big forced break is never easy. Smith’s return to competitive cricket came via the IPL where, once again, he steered Rajasthan Royals replacing Ajinkya Rahane as the captain, mid-way through the tournament. Smith along with fellow ‘offender’ Warner were kept under the microscope by those who follow the game closely and were faced with myriad questions.
Will they get back to the prominent position they had earned? Will Smith regain his position as the number 1 Test batsman?
He answered those with his bat. 144 runs on day one of the Test (at one time, it did not look like the Aussies would cross the 150 run mark) was an essay any batsman would have give his right arm to play. He took the team on his small shoulders gently across the raging sea in the company of nine, ten and jack. The second knock was no different. There was a 90 run deficit and the scoreboard read 27 for 2.
There was a different kind of batting on display on day three and four at Edgbaston. It did look like the rest of the batsmen were playing on a different pitch than Smith. His stance was awkward, the ungainly hopping continued and the purists continued to be aghast with his self-taught batting technique. But Smith continued and England were still to find ways to dismiss the old thorn in their flesh.
This was Test cricket at its best and Smith at his finest. Taking his team from a face saving situation to putting them 1-0 at the ground considered England’s bastion was surreal and can only happen in the longest and the best format of the game.
To rise from making his Test debut against Pakistan at Lord’s nine years ago, as a part time batsman and part time leggie, to being labelled as the best batsmen in the world can be part of a fairy tale. Smith today, is a well-rounded player who switches his technique to excel in different conditions.
Using the bottom hand on hard surfaces back home, to relying on his nimble footwork in Asia and playing as late as possible in England have given him a Bradmanesque status.
Forget the win and giving Australia a one nil advantage in the most important series for any cricketer from down under, Smith’s showing has brought character back into the Aussie dressing room.
The sandpaper episode is now in the dustbin with the kind of attitude Smith and skipper Tim Paine have shown. It is as if the fighting and never give up Aussie spirit is now laced with a smile as Ben Stokes found out each time he met an Australian.
For someone who thought he would never play cricket again, while in the wilderness for a bit over a year, Smith has proven that class indeed is permanent. More importantly, his polite demeanour during the match so far is telling impolite English fans to stuff the bits of sandpaper that they carried onto the ground into their mouths.
There is lot to be learnt from Smith’s showing. He has answered all his critics and the bullying fans with a superlative performance and positive attitude. For the Aussies, Smith’s ‘last man standing’ approach must have instilled tremendous faith and confidence to take on the enemy in the rest of the Ashes games.
Test cricket needed a hero to keep it from being shunted down by the T20 version of the game. Smith’s return was, in his own words, a dream comeback something troubled cricketers like Prithvi Shaw should learn from. The lad who took backward steps after making huge leaps in Test cricket could well take Smith as an example and come back stronger....