The best Test batsman at present, Steven Smith’s career redemption is a story for the ages. Having made his name initially as a potential leg-spinner who could bat a bit, there was immense c…
The best Test batsman at present, Steven Smith’s career redemption is a story for the ages. Having made his name initially as a potential leg-spinner who could bat a bit, there was immense criticism, even among those in Australia over the quality of his selection during his early days in international cricket. However, they were made to eat humble pie as the enigmatic man from New South Wales turned things around in sensational fashion to feature among the best batsmen in the world.
It was the 2007-08 domestic season when Smith made his debut across formats. He was known to give the ball a fair rip and could generate a lot of turn as a leg spinner. His boyish charm and the run up to the crease even drew comparisons with the legendary Shane Warne who had just retired from international cricket a season or so before. Smith’s talent was evident but he was too raw for the big stage. In a couple of years, the national call-up came with the limited-overs debut happening in February 2010. The tour of England later that year saw his initiation in the longest format as well.
Smith started off as a player who could bat at 7 or 8 apart from bowling his leggies. However, there was still a lot of rawness in his skill set. His selection during the Ashes series of 2010-11 drew a lot of contempt and after Australia lost the urn, his career also faded a touch, being dropped from all formats of the game. There was a feeling among the pundits that the bloke had more talent with the bat than with the ball. There was certainly a lot of courage about Smith the batsman and he started working more consciously on it. The former Australian great Greg Chappell once remarked that Smith was the best batting talent in the country. In the coming years, he would be proved right in a big way.
Fittingly, it was an Ashes series that showcased Smith’s resurgence. During the trip of England in 2013, he exhibited a far more improved level of batsmanship, sprinkled with a good dose of grit and mental strength. The unorthodox technique had only grown with an exaggerated trigger movement and shuffle across the stumps, all of which raised eyebrows among the purists. The bottomline though, was that it proved effective and he had an impressive series. Although Australia lost the series, the selectors decided to invest in Smith version 2.0 and the return Ashes series at home that summer saw him continue his upward graph.
There were a few crisis knocks from him, including the Ashes-sealing hundred at the MCG and he followed it up with an equally impressive tour of South Africa. His contributions were valuable in both those series as Australia emerged victorious. If the 2013-14 season saw Smith making a strong comeback to the international arena, the following season established him among the best in the world. A phenomenal home series against India was the starting point and he hasn’t looked back ever since, racking up runs in all conditions against all kinds of attacks. His exploits saw him ranked number one in Tests during the year 2015 and he has remained there since then, by a fairly good margin as well.
Even as Smith plundered runs at will, there were still a few skeptical opinions on him, about his ability to score in seaming/spinning conditions. The 2015 Ashes tour of England did see him notch up a couple of tons, including a double century at Lord’s while the 2017 tour of India displayed him at his impeccable best. Both the series were proof enough that Smith virtually had everything covered in his batting. After England tour in 2015, he was expectedly appointed as Australia’s captain for Tests and ODIs while the T20I leadership came over the next six months.
White-ball cricket has also been a success for Smith although not as much as his Test heroics. In ODIs especially, he has worked himself up the ladder as a premier batsman. The 2015 World Cup was memorable for him as he became the first player to achieve five successive fifty-plus scores in the tournament’s history. Those included the quarterfinal, semifinal and final. In T20Is, Smith hasn’t quite had the impact that he would have liked to. Missing most of the series hasn’t helped either. Nevertheless, his prowess has been on show during the T20 leagues, notably in the IPL where he even led the Pune franchise to the final in 2017.
It seemed like things were perfect for Smith, runs kept coming especially in Tests but his bargains in ODIs were moderate where Australia were also on a bit of a lean patch. Nevertheless, the reputation that Smith had built up was sensational. However, tragedy struck fiercely on Australia’s tour of South Africa in March 2018. The series was strongly contested like most series between the two sides but the on-field controversy ruled the roost with things getting ugly in the third Test at Cape Town. Australia were found guilty of ball tampering that was apparently preplanned as well. As a result Smith along with vice-captain David Warner and rookie Cameron Bancroft faced the boot.
The ICC slammed a one-Test ban on Smith who was enduring a poor series with the bat as well but the punishment back home from Cricket Australia was more severe – a one year exile from all forms of cricket. The incident saw him being stripped of IPL captaincy for the Royals and consequently, ruled out of the tournament. Having endured a tough one-year ban, Smith returned to competitive cricket in March 2019 through the IPL. Despite seeming a bit rusty, his class was evident and it wasn’t surprising when he walked straight back into Australia’s World Cup squad.
IPL through the years
Right from his debut year in the IPL in 2012, Steve Smith made an instant impression. That was a time when he wasn’t a regular Australian cricketer and was touted as a middle order batsman who could bowl a bit of leg-spin. Naturally, that was his designation in the IPL too, as he got snapped up by the Pune Warriors. He ended up with more than 350 runs at a fine strike rate without a single fifty in the season – a testimony of his consistency as he regularly chipped in with useful knocks down the order. The 2013 season was underwhelming and with the franchise’s expiry, Smith was picked up by the Rajasthan Royals in 2014.
His maiden season for RR was again lukewarm at best with no real big scores but again, he was batting at the very end, more as one of the team’s finishers. His rise as an international coincided with a reasonably good 2015 season which increased his stocks as an IPL batsman. Smith followed it up with his maiden IPL century in 2016 for the Rising Pune Supergiant, one of the temporary franchisees formed due to the suspension of CSK and RR. Injury cut short his campaign that year but he came back stronger in 2017, as captain and led the team to the final which they lost by a whisker. The Australian did enjoy a reasonably good season with the bat.
The 2019 IPL was Smith’s first real competitive engagement since being banned by Cricket Australia for the ball-tampering allegations in March 2018. He had missed the IPL season too that year but returned with a moderate season for the Rajasthan Royals. As he recently recovered from an elbow injury that required surgery, he was initially rusty but found his range as the season progressed. Captaincy wasn’t given to him initially but inevitably, it returned to him at the fag end of the season. Smith’s resurgence as a top class Test batsman may have restricted his white-ball strokeplay a bit but he remains a dependable batsman who should be starting for RR, possibly as their number three.
World Cup through the years
A young Smith was at the forefront of Australia’s victorious World Cup win in 2015. Consistent through the tournament, it was his antics at the business end that were laudable. His last five knocks in the tournament were all fifty-plus scores and he became the first player to have such knocks in the quarterfinal, semifinal and final of the World Cup. It wasn’t his first World Cup though, as he had played in the 2011 edition but more as a bowling all-rounder who could bowl leg spin. As a premier player, 2015 was his first real test and he passed it with flying colors. Come the 2019 tournament, Smith will be the glue around which Australia’s batting revolves.
The 2019 WC saw Australia crashing out in the semis to eventual champions England but it was again Smith who stood tall amidst the ruins even in the semis as he saved Australia from a collapse. Smith was assigned a new role at 4 and he did reasonably well of being the anchor man of the team.
However, it was the Ashes that would mark his proper reconciliation with cricket as this was the format which had triggered the ban. Having scored 8 tons against England, Smith tormented his favourite opponents with a run-glut laden Ashes 2019 to announce his return to international cricket. Wiser from experiences, Smith will be hungry to further better himself in the shorter formats. Being reappointed as the skipper of Rajasthan Royals in the IPL should boost his morale. He is at present an efficient white-ball batsman but given his prowess, he can surely improve it in the range of his Test exploits.