Steve Smith has shocked us all
Date: January 8, 2016 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell
Just two years ago he was pottering around in Sheffield ranks with New South Wales. And his record at the time showed that is where he belonged.
Heading towards the end of the 2012-13 Shield season he was carrying a batting average of 37.0 and had not scored a century that summer.
A return to Test ranks, on face value, appeared a fair way off.
He had tasted the big time – as a leg-spin bowler – against Pakistan in England in mid-2010 at the tender cricketing age of 21.
He batted at number eight in the two Tests at Lord’s and Headingley where he made scores of 1, 12, 10 and 77.
But it was his bowling that he was chosen for, picking up match figures of 3-51 and 0-31.
He was overlooked for the opening two Tests the following home summer against England but was recalled for the last three.
This time he found himself at number six in the batting order, scoring 159 in his six innings.
He was also the sole spinner at Perth and Melbourne before being partnered with Michael Beer at the SCG.
He was not called upon to bowl at the WACA and went wicket-less in the last two Tests while conceding 138 runs.
At the end of that series he was cast into the Test wilderness.
His five Tests had produced 259 runs at 28.8 and three wickets at 73.3. Yes, he was still young and a recall was certainly not out of the question.
However, when it did come for the Indian tour in March 2013 it raised some eyebrows given his mediocre form at Shield level.
The selectors stated that he had been chosen for his ability to combat spin, India’s home ground strong suit.
He didn’t play the opening two Tests but when he was recalled to the side for the third match at Mohali he repaid the selectors’ faith with 92 in the first innings and followed up with 46 in the first innings of the final Test at Delhi.
For Australia the tour was a humbling one as the side was totally outgunned, losing each of the four Tests.
For Smith, however, it was the start of a Test re-birth as he had done enough to show that he had a future at that level.
He was retained for all five Ashes Tests that winter in England where he averaged 38.3 including a breakthrough century – 138 not out – in the final Test at The Oval.
His bowling by now had very much taken a back seat.
It was the following Australian summer where he truly came of age with two centuries that helped define the team’s wins over England at Perth and Sydney.
He finished the whitewashed series with 327 runs at 40.9 but it was the manner in which he scored his runs, when his team desperately needed them, that impressed the most.
That series, and the confidence he gained from it, launched what can only be described as a run fest.
Now, coming towards the end of his rain-marred 39th Test, he boasts the stellar average of 57.9 with an equally stunning 13 centuries.
In his past 24 Tests he has averaged 74.7 while compiling 12 hundreds – all bar the last, against New Zealand in Perth in November, coming in his team’s first innings.
And he has done all this with a technique that you would never pass on to a budding youngster.
Before the ball is released he has a massive shuffle towards the off-side. Such a movement is not favoured by coaches who believe that such exorbitant movements are hard to replicate efficiently, even more so if the player enters a form slump – something that Smith is yet to experience.
Like Simon Katich before him he has used this lateral trigger movement to great effect.
Former England off-spinner Graeme Swann famously declared that Smith’s technique would not hold up in last year’s Ashes series. The man himself responded with two centuries including a personal best of 215 at Lord’s.
Smith is an inveterate fidget between deliveries, not unlike Ian Chappell in his prime.
This between delivery routine, a la Rafael Nadal’s pre-serve antics, is as ingrained as his movement to the off-side.
Smith’s technique has driven many a bowler to despair as he repeatedly works balls wide of off-stump through gaps in the leg side field.
The reigning ICC International Player of the Year, he is equally adept nowadays in short-form cricket but it is in the longer form where he is really making his mark.
At Test level, of those to have played 20 innings, only eight batsmen have averaged more than Smith’s 57.9 with Don Bradman the only Australian amongst them.
Of late Smith has also had to wrestle with the captaincy.
Albeit a nascent leader, he is already stamping his authority on the side which has included castigating players publicly for what he has considered poor on-field behaviour.
On face value leadership has done nothing to adversely affect his performance with the willow as his nine-Test average as skipper of 80.8 attests.
Smith is very much his own man.
He has never been one to covet the limelight. He is quietly spoken and increasingly confident in front of the cameras.
At the age of 26 he is well on the way to forging what may well be one of the greatest Test careers of all-time.
Crystal ball gazing is often fraught with danger but it is worth considering a few things at least.
In the past three years Smith has averaged 11 Tests per year. If that rate continued by age 34 he would have notched up around 120 Tests and should he remain skipper throughout that time he will be threatening Allan Border’s Australian record of 93 matches at the helm.
He is currently leading a resurgent side which can be expected to improve in the coming years.
In his last Test – against West Indies at the MCG – Smith passed 3500 runs.
In the process he got there at a younger age than any other Australian batsman bar Bradman.
When you consider the careers amassed by other modern-day players like Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh, Michael Clarke and Matthew Hayden that is a remarkable feat.
The sky is the limit for Steve Smith.
Which again begs the question … who saw it coming when he was recalled to the Test team just less than two years ago?
First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 7 January 2016, soliciting 21 comments