the evolution of steve smith

Thirty-three ODIS. Twenty T20s. Five Tests. Two fifties. Both in Tests.

That was Steven Smith before the March 14, 2013. Six-hundred and forty-three days later, he was captain of his country.

Pulls up his right pad.

When it was suggested by ESPNcricinfo’s Daniel Brettig in May last year that Smith might be the next captain of his country, not everyone took it well.

“This article is complete trash. For starters, Smith isn’t good enough a player to even consider for the Test side as yet and unless he scores a heck of runs, shouldn’t be considered as his bowling is almost as bad as this article.”

“If Steven Smith is the answer then we are looking down the barrel of the worst period in Australian cricket history. The only part of his game that is remotely Test standard is his fielding.”

“Steven Smith, captain of Australia…god help us, how bad are our stocks?”

Those were just the commenters. Brettig wasn’t suggesting Smith take over the next day, or even any time soon. Just that, despite Smith’s record and form, there was really no one else out there. Smith had just made a very good 92 in Mohali, but one that looked blander with the Mitchell Starc and Shikhar Dhawan madness that followed. It also meant that he’d only made three international fifties from 60 international matches. And despite some suggestions that he could captain, and that his batting had matured, he wasn’t going to the Ashes.

I, like many of those commenters, people in bars and those on social media, was not convinced that Smith had changed. He was still the twitchy ball of mess that pushed at balls outside off stump like a junkie looking for a fix. India suited his feet; England would not suit his hands.

My exact words were, “I’d pick a dead donkey before I’d send Smith to England with his technique.” I was wrong. The others were wrong.

Steven Smith was the right man.

In the first innings in Nottingham, the Australian batting was in the mire. Three men made over 15. Ashton Agar. Phillip Hughes. Smith. At 22 for 3, most Australian fans wanted anyone but Smith walking out. Smith was still Smith. Early on he played a ball to point, while his groin when towards square leg.

It was Smith who lasted to stumps, who pulled Australia towards the England total, who gave any hope. Smith who pulled the short balls, used his feet to Swann and handled Anderson at his best.

But the following morning he was out nicking behind, outside off. Hughes batted on. Both were picked very early on as freakish talents with even freakier techniques. Both were dropped because of these flaws. Both were often written off by people because of it.

Smith’s innings is now something very special. It was against a rampant England, on a pitch neither team could bat on. It was composed. It was sensible. It wasn’t the knock of an allrounder. Or project player. It was actually a top-class innings. But Agar and Hughes then stole all the news. And it was only a 50. His fourth in Tests.

Pulls up his left pad.

There have been 33 Test captains younger than Steven Smith. Maybe three who looked younger.

Graeme Smith was younger. Way younger. But looked older. Bigger and more durable. If Steven’s appointment shocked some and seemed rash, compared to Graeme’s it was the most sensible decision in the world. That was nothing more than a hunch based on a cocky young kid, and needing Shaun Pollock to be a scapegoat. Graeme had less captaincy experience than Steven. Was years younger. Had barely played outside of South Africa. It was perhaps one of the worst decisions in South African cricket history. And probably one of the best.

South Africa dropped a captain after winning 13 of their previous 16 Test series, and tapped a kid based on one World Cup warm-up match.

Had South Africa worked out Duckworth Lewis… Had Gary Kirsten been younger… Had Mark Boucher not been a wicketkeeper… Had Jacques Kallis not been Jacques Kallis… Had Shaun Pollock not been the scapegoat… Then, Graeme Smith wouldn’t have taken over.

Had Australia not been so rubbish in India… Had Mickey Arthur not been fired… Had Australia not had any injuries… Had Michael Clarke’s body actually held up… Then, Steven Smith wouldn’t have taken over.

Adjusts his thigh pad.

The first Test 50 was perhaps the most insane one. Australia had been bowled out for 88 in the first innings. They were six down and only 47 runs in front when Smith came in. The bowlers were Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir, Umar Gul and Danish Kaneria. Pakistan in excelsis.

Smith fiddled and left while barely scoring. His first 50 balls came with 19 runs. Then the tail went out. And Smith decided to hit the ball. He pulled. He slogged. He drove. He danced. He twirled. He twitched. He was the last man out for 77, from 100 balls.

Ponting was asked in the press conference if Smith was going to put pressure on Marcus North at six. Ponting said no. It was clear that he saw this as a charming fluke; he called the runs “pretty entertaining and very valuable”. Smith was a cheeky slogger who could field the house down, but was outbowled by Marcus North and not a real batsman.

Smith didn’t even keep his place in the next two Tests, despite the fact they were in India. His bowling went away like one of his floated full tosses.

Shakes his inner thigh pad.

It wasn’t even that long ago Michael Clarke was trying to get him dates via Twitter. There are photos out there of Steven Smith posing with lion cubs, having perhaps the best time of any human ever in the history of the world. There is another where he wears a hat with a propeller on it. Smiling like he’s found the secret to eternal happiness in hat form. And a photo shoot where he stands proudly in a zebra onesie. Complete with a hood. And a tail.

Australian cricketers are certainly not new to embarrassing photos. Shane Warne has had a few. Some of Clarke’s underwear photos are certainly not great. But Smith’s are something different. They’re the photos of a uni student on Facebook. Not a Test captain. He doesn’t look drunk in them. He looks incredibly happy. Alive. Young. And un-captain like.

But then on the field, whether for Rajasthan Royals, Sydney Sixers or New South Wales, something turns. He’s still that kid, but he’s that kid with a job to do. The senior players see the cheeky face, the propeller hats, and his youth, and some have tried to push him. Stuart MacGill once received unfriendly language when questioning something Smith said. He may look like a kid on a Contiki tour, but he’s got Australian Captain mongrel beneath those cheeks.

Tweaks his box.

After Smith’s first two Tests, he only had to wait a few more to be back in the squad. He was the last man sent home from the 2010-11 Ashes Gabba Test. He was very upset at Brisbane airport when leaving. By the third, at the WACA, he was back. Batting at six. Replacing Marcus North. It was very confusing. Smith failed to make 50 in his first five comeback innings. In the sixth, as England warmed up their celebratory sprinkler moves, he made a not out 50, his second. But he had started in Perth as a number six. By Sydney he was moved one spot down to number seven.

It was at this point that it was clear that it wasn’t just fans that had no idea what Steven Smith was – the Australian team and management didn’t either. Was he a number eight who could bowl? A number six who could bat? Or a number seven who fielded really well?

Pushes his helmet tighter on his head.

Australia were playing a warm-up against Pakistan A in Sharjah. Brad Haddin had been replaced by a local keeper. Then Clarke left the field. But it was Chris Rogers who took charge of the team. That was in October.

Even when Smith was in charge, people didn’t always know it. The announcer at the Shield final said, “The NSW captain, Steven O’Keefe.” That was in March.

Fiddles with his shirt collar.

Australian captains seem to be absurdly good fielders. Mark Taylor didn’t really move, but he swallowed everything in his path. Allan Border made short midwicket look like a cool place to field. Bob Simpson caught with his chest. Ricky Ponting was an expert in every single position on a fielding map.

Smith is following this tradition. The best fielders seem to know where the ball is going. They read the ball, the pitch, the hands, the bat, the feet, and they are there before most batsmen know where they are hitting it. Smith up close is quite like that. He seems to move before the shot, like he’s privy to some information that we aren’t. Plus he is quick. His hands are great. His body morphs into whatever it needs to be to find the ball. And when he has it, he’s deadly with the stumps.

When he took the one-handed diving screamer in this match, it just felt normal. Had it been Shane Watson, or a Marsh, there might have been real surprise. But Smith seems to have been flying sideways since the first time we saw him. Had he not made it as a batsman, we still would have remembered the fielding.

Puts his left glove on better.

When Smith was brought back for the India Test series of 2012-13, he had scored only one firstclass hundred since 2009-10. Yet, he was picked as a No. 5 batsman in a Test team in crisis. Had it not been for Clarke’s back injury, he wouldn’t have been in the squad for the Ashes in England. Had it not been for once of Uncle Boof’s hunches, he probably wouldn’t have played at all.

Smith made first-class hundreds for Australia A against Ireland and for Australia against Sussex. But at Old Trafford, it was another 50 that kept him in the team and made him look, for the first time in his career, completely necessary.

Old Trafford wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t dominant. It wasn’t insane. It was just batting. Smith hardly hit any boundaries. Smith hardly played crazy shots. Smith just accumulated and put Australia into a great position. Until, when on the brink of the 90s, he played a shot that was so silly Geoff Boycott is still mid-rant about it, he looked like a batsman.

They picked him as a junk yard dog. A scrapper. One that hit the ball where others didn’t. That really believed in himself. That ignored his weaknesses and backed himself.

They still had all that, and a batsman.

His work with Trent Woodhill, his personal batting coach, had turned him into a zen batsman. The twitches were still there. Outside off still looked shaky. But he was cool with it. Supercool. Two Tests later at The Oval, he was ready and able to make a Test match hundred.

138. Not out.

That was 485 days ago. The hundreds haven’t stopped since.

Moves his helmet back.

There was so much energy from Smith, the Test captain, on the field at the Gabba. Almost every over he ran down to chat to the bowler. Sometimes he’d chat to the bowler who’d just completed the over, and then run to the bowler who was about to bowl the next one. Not many overs went by without a change in the field. He sought out Haddin. Watson. Rogers. Warner.

At times, the young guy in him escaped; at one point he feigned throwing a ball behind his back at the stumps.

He was also obsessed with watching replays on the big screen. Clearly didn’t want to bowl himself. Tried a funky move with Warner’s slow-medium pacers. Managed not to cry too much as he lost Mitchell Marsh to injury, Mitchell Starc to form and injury, and Josh Hazlewood to cramps.

When Australia finally bowled India out in the first innings, Smith ran up to pat Mitchell Johnson on the back. Johnson didn’t react at first. Then he turned and patted Smith on the back.

Fixes the band on his right glove.

Smith had made a lot of runs in 2009-10 playing Shield cricket, he’d also taken a seven-wicket haul. Then his career had taken him around the world. He’d played for Australia, Kochi Tuskers Kerala, New South Wales, Pune Warriors, Rajasthan Royals, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Sydney Sixers and Worcestershire. He’d played in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, South Africa, England, Zimbabwe, the UAE, Northern Ireland and the West Indies.

From 2010 to 2013, Smith was always playing. Turn your TV on and he’ll be playing somewhere, for someone. A franchise player. A county player. A limited-overs player. He was in demand. He was everywhere. He was in and out of Australian colours.

Smith was the modern player. He learnt the modern way.

Kicks at the dirt.

In 2011-12, Smith captained Sydney Sixers in the absence of Haddin. Sydney Sixers won the Big Bash League. Many were impressed with how well Smith led. It was certainly mentioned by Cricket Australia this week.

The one question all captains get when they take over the new job is how the captaincy will affect their batting. When Smith led the Sydney Sixers he played in nine games. He made 166 runs, with one 50.

But that was that Smith pre-junk yard dog. Pre-zen batsman. Pre-international hundreds.

This time he floated into the Gabba on a hoverboard made of runs. Since The Oval last year, 1129 of them at 66.

Maybe the captaincy can get to people. Perhaps a day in the field when it’s too hot for human exertion and no one can stand up would have upset some people. Or moving up the order for your newest position in the line up would do it.

But if there is something that can affect Smith’s batting at the moment, no cricket team has worked it out. When Australia were struggling, he took to R Ashwin to give them some space. When they were newly six down, he guided the ball over the slips casually. When Johnson almost lost his mind during an over from Varun Aaron, Smith tried to get the strike.

When Aaron sledged Smith, Smith smiled back cheekily. He might be the captain, but he still looks like a kid who has stolen a cookie.

Then he made his sixth Test ton in 488 days. His first as captain. He celebrated like a young boy at first. Then like a wise man afterwards.

Marks his guard endlessly.

At the Barley & Rye across from the Gabba, a Christmas work dinner chats about the horror of the Sydney siege, then moves seamlessly into a chat about cricket. People seem interested in Steven Smith. One guy stated that he had no problem with Smith, but he was just happy the other guy wasn’t playing. “Michael Clarke?” said a workmate.

“Yeah, that guy is a Wayne Kerr, if ya get what I’m sayin'”. From there the chat went to discussing the private life of Kyly Clarke.

Never did cricket skill, or results, come into the conversation.

Smith has moved on from just being a player. He is now one of the most talked about and scrutinised people in Australia. His private life is already more public. His partner is more public. Next will be where he lives, what he drives, how he dresses. Australian captains might be selected for their cricket, but they are judged in the court of public opinion on everything, just like a politician.

Smith is still only the Australian captain elect, but he has already had to talk about a terrorist siege on behalf of his team-mates, and talk about how they are moving on from their personal bereavement. It won’t be long before people start referring to him as a Wayne Kerr and discussing supposed mistakes his partner has made.

It’s the part of captaining the Australian cricket team your fantasies never really cover.

On Channel 9, he was speaking to a former captain, and he said, “I’d just like them to like me for the person I am.”

Shuffles the wristband.

Pad. Pad. Glove. Helmet. Glove. Thigh. Inner thigh. Box. Wristband. Helmet. Pad. Pad. It’s a blur. Maybe 15 adjustments. All quicker than his footwork. Smith moves so fast at times it’s impossible for all, or any, of these things to actually to be bothering him. It’s not about that. It’s a ritual. It’s his cricketing signum crucis.

At one point, within 40 seconds Smith touches his helmet seven different times. He is twitchy and uncomfortable. He looks nervous. He is at the non-striker’s end. He is 121 not out. Australia are quickly erasing the deficit. They are 1-0. India are now feeling the heat. The crowd is cheering.

This is a great moment for him. He is Captain Australia and doing great. He’ll enjoy it, once he’s readjusted his shield.

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2 thoughts on “the evolution of steve smith

  1. Spry says:

    Beautifully written again, JK.
    Tremendous summary of Smith’s rapid rise.
    It’s so pleasing to watch a young cricketer get it all together so well.
    What has always impressed me about Smith is the amount of time he seems to have. While others seem in a hurry, he just seems so unflustered and composed.
    His reflexes must be uncanny.

  2. Bob says:

    It took Graeme about 10 years to evolve from obnoxious twat to a worthy captain or was it that declaration in Sydney.

    The thing about Clarkie is I suspect he’s still an obnoxious twat. Remember when he berated Steve a little while back for being too familiar with the opposition and it turned out he was actually stirring the pot. I’m in the Katich camp, he Katich, shoulda hit him harder.

    You could tell from the early days Steve was a champ. He might not have scored big but he scored well for the team situation. He was the little engine that could. He’s still a little under done but hopefully with a caring and mature team he’ll be guided well over the next few years.

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