The Ashes: Steve Smith ‘probably the best Test batsman we’ve ever seen’ as Australia crushes England in opener
Sport news Aug 8, 2019 at 00:03
(CNN)There was a time when Steve Smith thought he might never pick up a cricket bat again.
Banished from the international arena after being found guilty of ball tampering during a Test match in South Africa in March of last year, Smith resigned the Australian captaincy and was suspended from cricket for a year.
Along with teammates David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, his actions brought great shame not just to cricket but to Australia as a whole.
Tearful interviews and remorse followed that day in Cape Town as both Smith and Australia set about repairing their respective images amid a backdrop of scorn and distrust.
Fast forward to the present day and it is a different world. Steve Smith’s world.
As Australia claimed a crushing 251-run victory in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston Monday, Smith once again moved into the spotlight, and in his own way, with that constant fidgeting and filleting of England’s bowlers, gave a timely reminder of his supreme talent.
Two centuries in two innings from Smith helped lay the foundations for this Australia win, its first at Edgbaston since 2001, and simultaneously silenced those who had poured scorn upon him from the stands.
For those England fans who had welcomed Smith as a pantomime villain with a chorus of boos, this was a chastening experience as the figure of fun became the star of the show.
“We’re running out of things to say about Smithy,” Australia captain Tim Paine said at the post-match presentation. “He’s probably the best Test batsman we’ve ever seen. We’re lucky to witness it.”
READ: The Ashes: Sledging and the bitter fight for iconic miniscule trophy
READ: Romanian cricketer becomes internet sensation
Lucky indeed. There are few players as talented or as unorthodox as Smith. Look inside the coaching manual for a guide on “How to play like Steve Smith” and you will be sorely disappointed.
“When he goes out to bat it’s almost like he’s in a trance-like state,” former Australia captain Steve Waugh told reporters after analyzing Smith’s performance.
“He knows exactly what he’s trying to do, exactly what the opposition are trying to do and he analyzes every ball – it’s like a computer, he spits out the answer.”
Such was Smith’s dominance in this contest that England could have borrowed the Enigma machine from Bletchley Park and still struggled to find the code to break Smith’s resistance.
The 30-year-old had already shown glimpses of form during the recent World Cup in England, but few had expected him to play at such a level given his year out of the game.
In the first innings with his side 122-8, Smith showed not only incredible levels of resilience but huge skill as he dragged Australia to 284.
His 144 in the first innings and 142 in the second took the game away from an England side that seemingly crumbled at the sight of him.
Now where the country’s first question was once, “How do we solve Brexit?” the question is now, “How do we get Steve Smith out?”
For Smith, this victory will be particularly sweet. He was booed and jeered mercilessly during the World Cup in England, and his presence at Edgbaston in this Test match was met with loud derision from a partisan home crowd.
Such pressure and influence from the crowd may have affected a lesser player. Not Smith, though.
READ: India star suspended from cricket after doping violation
READ: How ‘luck of the Irish’ and ‘Allah’ inspired England’s World Cup win
“Steve Smith has been unbelievable, not just this week but in the last five or six weeks too,” Paine told the BBC.
“He makes guys better. He’s one of the best Test batsmen we’ve seen and he seems to be getting even better.
“It speak a lot to his character as well. He’s been through a tough time and copped it all day, every day in England for the past three to four months. It shows incredible mental strength and concentration to get through that and together with the skill he has, he’s an amazing package.
“Everyone is going to cop it in England. It doesn’t really matter and we’ve spoken about how to cope with it.”
READ: England benefited from ‘clear mistake’ in World Cup final
READ: England wins astonishing World Cup final
Smith may not have to worry about receiving too much more abuse now, especially given England will need the next week to focus on how to break its nemesis.
Two years ago it was Smith who haunted England, finishing the five match series with 687 runs at an average of 137.40.
No wonder that on Sunday, after making his second successive century, Smith said he felt that the first four days of this contest had felt like “Christmas morning every morning.”
“Pretty special” was how Smith summed up his team’s victory Monday.
“It feels great, I’m loving being back playing cricket for Australia, doing what I love and contributing to wins,” he told the BBC.
“To score two hundreds in a match – the first time I’ve done that in any form of cricket in my life – is very special and I’m very proud.
“I didn’t dream about how I would come back. I was jut letting time pass and when I got my elbow brace off after surgery something clicked and I was ready to play cricket again. I did lose that love for a little bit but I’m back doing what I love now and it’s great.
“When I got that first hundred I was just thinking, ‘Don’t burst into tears.’ That was as special as my first hundred back in 2013. It was a relief to get it out of the way.
“I copped a bit of stick out there but I’m not paying much attention to that and fortunately we’ve got a good Aussie contingent here. They’re creating a good atmosphere for us and we’re grateful for it.”
By the time England’s batsmen headed out in pursuit of an improbable 398 runs to win the contest, or more likely, to bat through the day to save the Test, Smith’s work was done.
He watched on as Nathan Lyon claimed six wickets and Pat Cummins the other four as England were meekly dispatched for a meager 146. An embarrassment.
As Smith celebrated, England preferred to look forward to Lord’s and the second Test which starts on August 14.
It has nine days to work out how to hack Smith’s seemingly unbreakable code of batting.
“He has got to start again at Lord’s and we have to make it very difficult for him to get in,” England captain Joe Root said of Smith when asked by the BBC.
“He’s very greedy when gets in and makes big scores. We have to exploit his mistakes when we can.”
Unfortunately for Root and England, those mistakes don’t appear to be happening. Perhaps it’s England’s turn to press the reset button.