In present times, with cricket being played round the year, reaching the milestone of 100 Tests has ceased to be a rare feat. At last count, there were 73 cricketers who have played in 100 or more Tests, with Sachin Tendulkar leading the pack with 200 matches to his credit. Among the current lot of players there are nine who have reached the 100-Test club. Indeed it is a far cry from the days when Colin Cowdrey, the first cricketer to play in 100 Tests, had to wait for another 17 years before he was joined by the next cricketer to reach this landmark. Thus Steve Smith, the latest member of this club, would not have got the feeling that he is joining an exclusive set of cricketers when he walked out to bat in the thirst Test of the ongoing Ashes series, at Headingly, Leeds, last Thursday.
It will be an understatement to state that the career of Smith in international cricket is a remarkable one. Not many would remember that when he was first selected to play for Australia in 2010, it was primarily for his abilities as a right-arm leg-spinner who could also contribute “a bit” with the bat. But soon his batting caught the eyes of the team management and the selectors, resulting in a small forward move to the lower middle order. But despite a couple of fifties, he was dropped from the team in 2011 and was in the wilderness for close to two years before he could regain his spot in the national side.
Smith was selected to tour India in 2013 as a backup batsman and stood little chance of making it to the playing eleven for the Tests. But a peculiar set of circumstances, which led to four Aussie players being not considered for selection on account of not doing “homework”, worked in his favour and he was drafted into the eleven for the third Test at Mohali. He grabbed this opportunity with both hands and made a polished 92 in the first innings. Though he followed up with a set of decent scores in the next Test, he did not win a place in the squad for the Ashes campaign of 2013.
However, here also certain developments worked in his favour. He was touring England as a member of Australia 'A' side when he was drafted into the main squad. He started well with a half-century at Trent Bridge, followed up with another at Old Trafford and cemented his place in the eleven with an unbeaten century in the last match at The Oval. Though Australia lost the series 0-3, Smith emerged as one of the successes of this tour. In the return series in 2013-14, Australia turned the tables, thrashing England 5-0, while Smith helped himself to two centuries in home conditions.
This was the start of a purple patch for Smith. During the next 56 Tests spread over 66 months (from February, 2014 to September, 2019), Smith scored 6,194 runs at an awesome average of 72.03, which included 24 centuries. In between, he also emerged as the highest run scorer in the 2015 International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup with a tally of 402 runs. He also showed his class by striking two magnificent centuries in India in 2017-18, batting with ease and expertise on pitches that resembled minefields.
Smith was elevated to captaincy when Michael Clarke stepped down from this post in 2016. He began his career as a captain on a positive note with series wins over New Zealand and the West Indies. Though defeats at the hands of Sri Lanka in an away series and against South Africa at home acted as a dampener, he redeemed himself with victories against Pakistan and New Zealand. This was followed by the crowning glory of his tenure as skipper, when he won the Ashes series of 2017-18, played in Australia, by a margin of 4-0.
Little would Smith have guessed at this juncture that the worst phase of his career was around the corner. The tour of South Africa in early 2018 saw abominable behavior on the part of players of both sides which nearly led to fisticuffs off the field. With the series squared 1-1, Australia resorted to tampering the ball to gain advantage over the hosts. Television cameras caught Cameroon Bancroft, a rookie opener using sand paper, which he concealed inside his underwear, to alter the condition of the ball. Smith admitted, during the press conference at the end of the day, that he too was party to the decision to tamper the ball, which was a “big mistake”. Criticisms flew in thick and fast, with even Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia, expressing his “shocking disappointment”. Cricket Australia promptly asked Smith to step down as skipper and return home from the tour.
It was a tearful homecoming for Smith, who found himself without many friends. The general feeling was that he had let down his side and country by taking recourse to cheating. A quick inquiry by Cricket Australia found him guilty of failing to take steps to prevent the incident, attempting to mislead match officials and issuing incorrect public statements. He was awarded 12-month suspension from domestic and international cricket. He apologised to his teammates, followers of the game world over and the Australian public. His words “I know I will regret this for the rest of my life. I am absolutely gutted. I hope in time I can earn back respect and forgiveness”, conveyed his angst and agony.
Smith returned to the Australian side for the 2019 ICC World Cup. He was greeted with boos and catcalls and shouts of “cheat” and “liar” rent the air when he walked out to bat during the first few matches. But Smith took it stoically, allowing his bat to do the talking. He reserved his best efforts for the 2019 Ashes campaign when he scored 774 runs, which included a double ton, two hundreds and three fifties. In the second Test, he was struck on his helmet by a snorter from Jofra Archer, when he was batting on 80. He retired, underwent tests and resumed his innings but was dismissed for 92. He missed the next Test on account of concussion but came back with a vengeance in the fourth game where he scored 211.
Though the law of averages caught up with Smith during the post 2019 period when runs from his bat dried up a little, he remains one of the best batsmen of his generation, at par with Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Kane Williamson. His strength has been his exceptional ability to perform well against hostile bowlers in conditions favorable to them. He is one of the best “travellers” , with an average score of 55.20 per innings when playing outside Australia. This will be vouched for by not only followers of the sport in India who have witnessed his batting on turning tracks but even by the fans in England where he has scored heavily in conditions favoring seam and swing bowlers. His tally of 9,113 runs on the eve of his 100th Test, along with the close to 6,000 runs in limited overs matches makes him one of the most prolific run-scorers in contemporary cricket.
When it comes to technique, Smith is unorthodox but he makes up for it with his superb hand eye coordination and sharp cricketing brain. He has the unique ability to outthink the bowlers, which places him in an advantageous position, irrespective of the bowlers involved and the conditions under which the game is played. He uses his feet well to tackle the spinners and employs the hook and pull shots to good effect when confronted with fast, short-pitched balls. He does not get flustered nor does he show any sense of hurry while at the crease, and these, along with his redoubtable stoicism, are the blocks on which he built his career.
It is a pity that the moment of “brain fade” in 2018 put an early end to his captaincy. One sees the side move with a greater sense of urgency and purpose whenever he takes over the reins. The Indian crowds saw this in action when led the visiting Aussies to a victory in the third Test at Indore earlier this year after they lost the first two matches rather tamely. He remains one of the best fielders in the side and can chip in with the occasional wickets using his fastish leg spin though he seldom turns his arm over these days.
At 34, Smith is nearing the twilight of his career. He has been successful in all versions of the game and will be a key figure in the Aussie campaign for regaining the World Cup in India during October-November. However, it appears unlikely that he will be in a position to discharge his responsibilities as the main batsman for Australia for more than a couple of years. But one can be certain that many more records will be broken and new milestones achieved before he hangs up his boots and bids adieu to international cricket.
Congratulations, Steve Smith!
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)