Steve Smith’s calm after the storm
If 2019 was all about rediscovering that old belief for Steve Smith after a yearlong ban for the ball-tampering scandal that broke him emotionally, the New Year will be about covering fresh ground in limited-overs cricket with Australia hosting the T20 World Cup in October.
The quest for perfection has begun in right earnest for Smith, who topped the charts in the recent three-ODI series in India with a tally of 229 runs. His 98 and 131, though both came in losses, extended his excellent record against India—average 60.46.
With a series average of 114.50, Smith proved there are exceptions to skipper Aaron Finch’s statement that playing in the sub-continent can make one ‘doubt their game plan’.
“I don’t completely agree with that (Finch’s view). You need to just remain calm and composed and trust what you are doing. Particularly in one-day cricket, the wickets are pretty good and not too dissimilar to what you get around the world. It’s just about having faith in what you’re trying to do and just keep believing in yourself,” he said in an interview.
Smith, 30, knows a thing or two about remaining calm in the face of adversity. After serving the ban, Smith made a dream comeback at the World Cup and the 2019 Ashes in England. He braved persistent booing from the stands—remember Virat Kohli urging Indian fans to applaud him in the World Cup?—and won their admiration with his cricket.
Still, Jofra Archer’s bouncer ensured Smith’s comeback in the whites wasn’t smooth—he had to miss a Test because of concussion. He held firm on return, and by the time Australia retained the Ashes after the series was drawn, Smith had made triple-figure scores thrice, including a double century.
Just wanted to return
“The mental side of my game is the key really. I just wanted to get back on the field. The Ashes was a big series, and luckily in my comeback, I was able to play really well in England which gave me confidence,” Smith said.
“It was a terrific year. I loved every minute of it. We had a lot of success, particularly in Test cricket. Retaining the Ashes and winning every Test at home was exceptional. The One-day team made some good strides to make it to the semis of the World Cup, so yeah, it’s been an enjoyable year … hopefully we have another successful year.”
He lauded the efforts of wicketkeeper Tim Paine, who was handed the Test captaincy following Smith’s ban. “Tim’s done a terrific job. He’s led the troops really well. Retaining the Ashes in England in twenty-odd years was a great effort.”
He came under fire at home and around the cricketing world for the tampering scandal with even the then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull terming it a ‘shocking disappointment’. Smith says his straightforward approach to the game and life saved him.
“I have played a lot of cricket now … (I) came in really fresh and was able to sort of start performing straightaway. For me, it’s about making sure the mental side of my game is in a good place; if it is, then it’s just about backing your ability when you are out in the middle and doing what you can for the team. My job is to score runs and hopefully I can continue to do that.”
Marnus keen learner
The man who is making waves in Australia cricket though is Marnus Labuschagne. The South Africa-born player has drawn comparisons with Smith as a prolific scorer, part-time leg-spinner, and for his hunger for runs in the middle-order. He made his Australia debut as a concussion substitute of Smith in the second Ashes Test at Lord’s, scoring a half-century to help ensure a draw. That was in August. By the year end, the 25-year-old had finished as top-scorer in Tests for 2019—1022 runs in 10 Tests at an average of 68.13. He also made an impressive ODI debut in India, scoring 46 and 54.
“Marnus has come leaps and bounds in the last year,” Smith said. “He has shown such quick and amazing improvement as a player who knows his game really well. We talk a lot about the game, he wants to learn and get better. He is an incredibly hard worker who just wants to improve and you have got to admire that. The way he played throughout the summer was magnificent. Hopefully that form can continue for him in all formats.”
Votary of 5-day Tests
For world cricket, the past year saw calls for revitalising Test cricket gain momentum. While India became the last of the big teams to play its first day-night Test, Cricket Australia chief executive Kevin Roberts backed four-day Tests.
Smith, like many top cricketers, including Kohli and Australia off-spinner Nathan Lyon, is a traditionalist. “I am comfortable with five-days. I like the challenge of a five-day Test. There has been a lot of talk of the four-day Tests but I like five-days. I don’t make the decisions of how it all works out but five-day Tests is what it is all about.”
Smith will captain Rajasthan Royals again in the 2020 IPL. Last edition, he joined the team midway to take over as skipper. However, the 2008 champions did not qualify for the playoffs.
The former Australia skipper saw a lot of positives in one young player.
“Last year, we had Riyan (Parag, the Assam player) playing some really good knocks that got us over the line in a few games. We were fortunate he was able to do that under pressure coming into his first season. If it is your second season then that is quite often more difficult. Guys have seen you play and know what you do, studied you a bit more, so it’s about backing that up year on year. Riyan is a terrific young kid who wants to learn and get better. I see no reason why he cannot deliver us match winning knocks again.”