Oh, how they laughed. When Steve Smith first appeared in an Ashes series, in 2010-11, he told the press it was his job to “be fun”. The media’s mirth was merely heightened when he proved neither technically nor mentally ready, in a series England won 3–1.
Smith disappeared from the Test side, but re-emerged two years later as a cricketer who had embraced his strengths and shaved off some rough edges.
His evolution into a high-class batsman coincided with the last days of a dramatic era in Australian cricket. Smith found himself moving up the order – not only of batsmen, but of leaders. And, by the time he arrived in England last summer, he was anything but a laughing matter.
The 2015 Ashes twice showed Smith at his very best, as he followed a coruscating double-century at Lord’s with a match-shaping 143 at The Oval. It also revealed how reliant on him Australia had become: when, in between, he failed twice at both Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, the team failed with him. He ended the series nursing plenty of pain, but with more runs (508) than anyone on either side, and cradling a fresh commission as Australia’s Test captain.
STEVEN PETER DEVEREUX SMITH was born on June 2, 1989, in Sydney, the son of Peter and Gillian. He grew up in the south-west of the city, first playing cricket at the age of five, when he was the youngest member of his Under-8 team. His heroes were Mark Waugh and Michael Slater, who inspired him to adopt the brand of aggressive, fleet-footed batting that would later become a trademark. To Smith’s young eyes, Waugh “made everything look so easy”.
Peter, a biochemist, worked from home, affording him extra time to help his son’s game develop. “That was handy,” says Steve. “Pretty much every day after school he used to take me up to the nets and bowl at me. Each year he’d go over the crease a little bit further. So he’d bowl a no-ball by about a foot when I was 12, and then when I was 14 he was probably two foot over the line. That helped with my hand–eye co-ordination, and with facing faster bowling. I reckon the last time he bowled to me, when I was 15 or 16, he was about two metres over.”
Like Michael Clarke, Smith was playing grade cricket at 16, and handed his baggy blue New South Wales cap at 18. He had already learned to hold his own. When an older opponent spent hours sledging him, Smith eventually asked: “Mate, how old are you?” Thirty, came the reply. “And you’re still in second grade?” From then on Smith batted in relative peace.
His mother is from Kent, and Smith was always attracted to the idea of summers on the other side of the world. An NSW Under-19 tour gave him an early sight of the English game, and in 2007 he returned for a stint of club cricket that evolved into a few appearances for Kent and Surrey Second XIs, and a tantalising county contract offer. But he was never in any doubt about his allegiance.
Smith earned a Test debut, aged 21, against Pakistan in England in 2010, as a leg-spinning all-rounder at No. 8. He knows now he wasn’t ready, but he learned plenty. Older and wiser, he returned to England in 2013, initially as vice-captain of the Australia A side that was shadowing the Champions Trophy team in the last, fretful days of Mickey Arthur’s coaching tenure. A hundred on a seaming pitch in Belfast earned Smith the final place in the Ashes squad, in a selection meeting that occurred minutes before Arthur’s sacking. Against England his fortunes oscillated, but he reached his first Test hundred with a clumping six off Jonathan Trott at The Oval.
Of batting in England, he says: “It’s about playing the ball late, and making sure you’re not out in front of yourself. In Australia you can play out in front a little bit more because the ball doesn’t do quite as much. When you’re under pressure and your heart’s pumping, you almost go back to what you know. So it’s making sure you stay in the bubble of the way you want to play, and not revert to the way of playing in Australia.”
Smith arrived last summer as the world’s top-ranked batsman, having recently been promoted to No. 3 in the order. He squandered a pair of starts at Cardiff, but then found a willing ally at Lord’s in Chris Rogers, who provided a sturdy counterpoint to the swash in Smith’s buckle. Their first-day partnership dictated the course of a match he will always remember fondly. “We played extremely well,” says Smith. “It was a place I’d never had much success, so I was pretty keen to turn that around. To get my name up on the board with 215 is pretty special.”
But heavy defeats on seaming pitches in Birmingham and Nottingham gave Smith a sobering reminder that he was not as in control of his game as he thought. With the Ashes gone, it would have been easy to coast through the final Test at The Oval. But he was desperate to learn from his mistakes. “There were a few things I was doing with my technique that had crept in. My prelim movement was going a little bit too far, which squared me up a couple of times, so I played at balls I probably didn’t have to play at.”
Smith’s century helped set up an innings win to give Clarke and Rogers a suitably triumphant farewell, and offered a glimpse of what might be achieved when he next returns to England as an Ashes tourist.
This article was published in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2016. You can buy it here.