Steve Smith has been in good touch in recent times for Australia © Getty Images
By Gaurav Joshi
Australia’s tour of India 14 months ago was a tumultuous one for the visitors, as they lost the Test series 4-0. The four nil drubbing signified the drop in Australian cricket standards. It was believed that Australian cricket had reached the bottom of the barrel.
Twelve months on, not only is Australia ranked the No 1 team, but importantly, they have unearthed prospering Test match batsmen. A task that seemed improbable, as Australia were winless during the exasperating period between February and September last year.
Steve Smith’s rise in the past twelve months might seem like gradual, as his current Test average hovers around 40. But in the context of Australia’s demand for batsmen, it has been swift.
Smith had played five Tests, before he was picked in the team due to the homework saga in Mohali during the third Test. It was a turbulent time, the captain and the vice-captain were supposedly not in good terms, while the coaching methods employed were that of a business module out of some MBA text book. It felt that there was no way out for Australian cricket.
It was certainly not an ideal situation to return to Test cricket. As if that was not bad enough, Smith was reminded at the press conference about his throw that narrowly missed the stumps, but went for five overthrows to grant India a one wicket win at the same venue two years ago.
To Smith’s credit, he answered bravely and on the following day, showcased his ability with the bat against the turning ball. The pitch wasn’t a rank turner, but walking into bat when you have seen Australia’s captain get out adds to the nerves. However, Smith came out as a true winner. He passed the tough test with flying colours scoring a mature, determined and patient 92. It was Smith’s first innings for Australia since taking the advice of his state coaches to concentrate solely on his batting, and try to mould himself as a batsmen than a genuine all-rounder.
The transition started only 12 months prior for his state New South Wales (NSW), where Smith batted at No 4 for majority of the season. While the stats didn’t back his promotion, it was his timely innings on a subcontinental pitch at Blacktown Oval against Western Australia that made the selectors pick him for the Indian tour.
His quick footwork against spinners ensured that Smith was Australia’s best player of spin after Michael Clarke. Smith ended up 161 runs from two final Test matches, most amongst the Australian batsmen. The 46 he scored in Delhi was a great knock and as worthy as his 92 in third Test, given only two fifties were scored on either sides on a crumbling pitch. It was enough to secure him a place in the Ashes squad.
The spin test had been conquered and now Smith has to overcome the challenge of the swinging ball. In the first innings at Edgbaston, the signs were promising. Smith showcased a fine technique to score a gritty determined 53. It wasn’t an innings to hit the headlines, but the way Smith handled James Anderson on a gloomy and overcast day was a further glimpse of the revamped batsman.
It was a mental victory for Smith because in the 2010-11 Ashes at home, Smith kept getting out with the ball hitting the outside or the inside edge of the bat. Throughout that summer, he was made to look like a boy playing against grown men.
But in that first innings at Edgbaston, the key to Smith’s innings was the way he left the ball. Rarely was he beaten by Anderson’s banana-like outswinger. When the Englishmen set him up for the in-swinger, he played it late with the pad close to the pad. Smith also had the shots to score runs, but now he had the technique to keep the good balls out.
It was an innings that would have given Smith enormous confidence. The technical deficiency in his game had been eradicated through hard work, and his determination to transform into a top-order batsman, something his country desperately needed was praiseworthy.
The only issue he had in England was that he found ways to get out. Bottom edging on to his stumps or caught at deep mid-wicket trying to reach his first ton. He was also recipient of a couple of inaccurate decisions. Finally, his luck turned in the final Test, and Smith reached his maiden Test hundred. It was the last tick in the checklist for Smith since trying to climb up the ladder by playing as a top-order player for NSW, nearly fifteen months ago. Technique, patience, confidence and strokes, Smith had it all.
Smith’s batting potential in Tests didn’t go unnoticed, and one of the wise decisions the Australian selectors took was not to tinker with his style, and persist with him. They didn’t want Smith to start wafting outside off-stump again nor, did they want him to get into the mindset of a batsman playing the shorter formats of the game. The ideology was that Australia needed Smith as a front-line test batsman for Ashes at home in 2013-14. They could ill-afford for Smith to lose his touch for the longer format of the game by sending him to India for a seven match One-Day International (ODI) series. It turned out to be a masterstroke, as in the space of next five Test matches, he proved to his critics that he had arrived on the Test scene.
The man from the ‘Shire’ may have missed out in the first Two tests with the bat. But while all the accolades were poured over others like Mitchell Johnson, Brad Haddin, Ryan Harris and Clarke, Smith showed his class by taking Australia out of a spot of bother at WACA to score a fine century. Shane Watson’s ton in the second innings, along with Haddin resurrection in the first and Smith’s fine knock were the discussion points, as Australia wrapped up the Ashes. Behind the scenes, you sensed Smith knew that he now belongs to Test cricket.
But Smith was not finished yet. Smith saved his best for the final Test in front of his crowd on a pitch that was clearly under-prepared, as the Test match finished inside three days. In 10 Ashes Tests, Smith had accumulated 672 runs at an average of 42 with three Test hundreds. All the hundreds were in the first innings and came at a time when Australia desperately needed a batsman to stand up and be counted.
While Smith might have convinced his teammates, coaching staff and himself, many pundits still wondered, “let’s see how he goes against Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander.”
At Centurion, on a bouncy pitch, he played diligently. The South Africans wanted him to poke at short and wide deliveries, but he resisted. They bowled outside the off-stump, enticing him to play a loose drive, but he resisted. Actually, Smith waited, waited and waited for the loose ball. Smith compiled a fifty by feasting on loose balls bowled on his pads. It was a classic example of how to construct a Test innings, something that was a distant dream even for Smith when he tried ever so hard to score a ton for NSW in First-Class cricket, 12 months ago. Now, in space of 13 Tests, he has four Test hundreds, including two nineties. It showcased the dramatic rise in his batsmanship.
Once again, Warner’s batting and Johnson’s bowling captured all the headlines, as Australia defeated the No 1 team on their home soil. In Australia’s seven wins from eight Tests, Smith was overshadowed in each of the wins despite playing match-winning knocks in four of the seven Tests.
Johnson, Harris and Haddin might have resurrected Australian cricket, but Steve Smith’s resurrection as a batsman ensures Australia will be a force in years to come. Australia has unearthed a batsman that can prove to be the backbone of their Test line-up for a number of years to come. That itself has perhaps been Australia’s greatest accomplishment in the past 12 months.
(Gaurav Joshi is an Indian-born Australian who played with Michael Clarke in his junior days. He coaches and reports for a Sydney radio station. Over the years he has freelanced for Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and is a regular on ABC cricket show Cow Corner. He is the author of the book “Teen Thunder Down Under” – The inside story of India’s 2012 U19 World Cup Triumph)