It would be unfair to say that one man was solely responsible behind Australia’s success in the Ashes. Cricket is a team sport and batsmen can’t just win matches single-handedly for the team; bowlers have to take 20 wickets too. However, Australia’s bowlers fell agonisingly short in the third, humdinger of a Test match, which England won by one wicket. Coincidently, Steve Smith didn’t play that game owing to the concussion he suffered in the previous Test. So, we leave it to you to judge whether it was Smith who mattered the most for Australia, or it was just a helping hand from him that allowed Australia to retain the urn.
They say it has been Steve Smith’s Ashes. And, he has only taken part in two-and-a-half of the four Tests that have been played in the series so far. Well, such is the impact this man has had on the outcome of the matches. Smith and fellow returnee, David Warner, were the talk of the town before the first Test that got underway on 1st August. Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday? However, more than a month has passed since that day.
Australia were in all sorts of trouble after opting to bat at Birmingham. Warner was trapped on just 2, while the rest of the top order succumbed to England’s pacers. There were questions on how Smith would adapt to Test cricket, having not played in the format for over a year. He hung in, grinded it out and took the wheel to guide Australia. It was the first innings of the series, and England were relishing the opportunity of starting on a dominating note. It was Steve Smith who came in their way like a wall.
Smith was left with the task of scoring with the tail at the other end. Australia were reeling at 122/8, and 200 seemed like a distant dream. However, he found an able ally in Peter Siddle, whose resilience allowed Smith to open his shoulders and score freely. Smith helped the Aussies to put up 284 on the board. After Smith’s 144, the next highest score was 100 runs less, Peter Siddle’s 44. Smith was overwhelmed to see the kind of support at the venue. Here’s his first reaction after he scored the hundred. “I just saw the boys were going berserk on the balcony. It sent shivers down my spine.”
The second innings had similar beginnings to the first. Australia lost two early wickets, but this time around, Smith found stable company in Usman Khawaja, and later, in the middle-order. The returning superstar played a dominating role as the Aussies looked to set a steep target for England. He crossed 140 yet again! He was just the fourth batsman to score in excess of 140 in both innings of a Test match. His twin centuries helped the Aussies romp to a 251-run victory.
Steve Smith had rolled back the years for Australian cricket. Once again, a lot of expectations were to be shouldered by this man from New South Wales. The second Test saw Jofra Archer make his debut, and many cricket gurus touted him to be England’s solution to the Steve Smith problem. Archer nearly proved them right.
Australia and Steve Smith were in a familiar position. The visitors had lost two early wickets, and Khawaja couldn’t resist beyond 36 runs. Smith tackled the Archer threat with his unorthodox skill. His leaves outside the off stump had become the talk of social town. When asked about what goes on in his head when he decides to leave a ball, Smith was honest in his answer. “I don’t know! When I see the ball hit a particular length, my bottom hand just takes over and I do something different.”
The battle between Archer and Smith took us a few decades into the past, when pacers like West Indies’ fearsome foursome and the Lillee-Thompson duo from Australia tested batsmen with vicious pace, swing and bounce.
Smith was hit twice, first on his arm, and the second one under his helmet. It sent shivers down everyone’s spine as Smith fell, reminding fans of the tragic case of Phillip Hughes from five years ago. Smith was hit around the same area. Smith walked off the field and the physio had performed a concussion Test in the dressing room. Australia kept losing wickets, and Smith decided to walk back out to the centre. Justin Langer was a concerned man when he saw Smith padding up again. “He just couldn’t wait to get back out there again. I asked, are you sure? These boys are like my sons, and I wouldn’t put them in harm’s way. He replied saying, I can’t get up on the honours board unless I’m batting.” That says a lot about Smith’s hunger and determination to score runs.
Smith was finally dismissed eight runs short of his century and walked off to a standing ovation from the Lord’s crowd. He couldn’t bat in the second innings, and international cricket got its first concussion substitute. The Test ended in a draw.
Steve Smith was ruled out of the third Test on precautionary grounds, and we all know what happened on Day 4. Ben Stokes took the game by the scruff of the neck and helped England level the Ashes at 1-1.
Smith returned for the fourth Test, fresh after the break. When he came out to bat, it didn’t seem like he had gone anywhere. Everyone expected a highly contested battle between Smith and Archer. Smith ensured that wasn’t to happen. He dominated all the English bowlers and bettered everything he’d done during this series.
Smith comfortably went past 100, going past Steve Waugh to claim the second position for most Ashes centuries by an Australian. In no time Smith crossed 150 and 200 seemed simply inevitable. The only hiccups Smith had during the knock was a return catch he provided to Archer, which was difficult, and the Englishman dropped it. Smith was also caught at slip by Ben Stokes off Jack Leach, only for the third umpire to call him for overstepping. Smith made the most of his two reprieves and went on to score his second double century in England, the third of his career.
Smith’s unorthodox best was on display in Manchester. After one of such shots, Smith lay flat on the pitch, as part of his follow-through. If you happened to switch the television on at the point where he was on the pitch, you would assume that he was floored by a bouncer or was thrown off balance by a jaffa. But no! He wasn’t! Smith played an absolute peach of a shot, leaning forward to one that was swinging away. He made contact when most of his body was in touching distance with the pitch. The ball struck the middle of his bat and fled to the fence very quickly. Through the course of his innings, Smith even played a lap to a beach ball that floated on to the ground. That was quite metaphoric, as he was clearly seeing the cricket ball like a beach ball. His talismanic knock finally came to an end on 211.
He wasn’t done in the game yet. He strolled out in the second innings and got going from the word go. Smith wasted very little time in getting set. One thing was common though, he had walked out when the Aussies were in trouble once again. Smith was the only man to go past 50 in the innings, scoring 82 off 92 balls, as Australia declared on 186. Their bowlers did the rest as England were bowled out for 197. Australia won the Test by 185 runs, taking the series score line to 2-1, and thus retaining the Ashes urn.
Smith is unorthodox, his batting may look weird. His mannerisms are quite idiosyncratic, as David Lloyd had mentioned when he was playing his first Ashes in 2013. Smith himself feels that his methodology of batting is not conventional. “Believe it or not, I actually forget how I hold the bat. I actually try and find that when I go in. Sometimes it takes me 10 balls, sometimes I go in straightaway, and it’s fine. Sometimes, it takes 100 balls. But, when I know, I’m good to go. I know I’m on fire here.” What more can we say about this modern legend!