The summer of 2019 kick-started in an emphatic manner for England as they lifted the World Cup on home soil in the most dramatic finish ever known to mankind. It was the sort of stuff that cannot be scripted, even in the best of films or dramas.
Not surprisingly, the expectations for the Ashes sky-rocketed to a new high. Irrespective of the jersey change, the English side was expected to do well against a wounded Australia. There was a lot of talk about the ‘momentum’ that England would take into the series.
To be fair, they had Australia on the mat halfway through Day 1 of the first Test. But ever since that point, it’s been trial and error for the hosts. Just when they think they’re in the driver's seat, they are run ragged, session by session.
One man is responsible for inflicting most of the misery on an entire nation - the fidgety freak who goes by the name of Steven Peter Devereux Smith. The former Australian skipper has single-handedly squeezed the life out of a quality English attack.
In an interview during the World Cup Justin Langer had pleaded that the fans refrain from booing Smith. The obvious implication was that Langer's words would escalate the matter and the crowds would come down harder.
At the time it had seemed like a sympathetic appeal from the Australian coach. But perhaps, behind that cheeky grin, Langer knew very well that a character like Smith revels when all the odds are stacked against him.
Not that they’re known to be the smartest, but this was a bluff that the English fans fell for hard, even by their own standards.
They say you shouldn’t push someone to such a point that they no longer give a damn. For example, in a cricketing context, former players are all of the opinion that if you ever verbally went after Brian Lara, the bowlers would be in for a tough outing over the next couple of days. He had the ability to completely shun all external factors and make them almost irrelevant.
These types of cricketers are rare, but Smith falls squarely into that category; heck, he probably tops that list. You could say it’s a mental zone of absolute focus and zeal. In simple words, it’s an individual operating at peak performance mentally and physically.
There was a point in the series that Joe Root thought he finally had the answer to Smith’s unorthodoxy. It was the only time that I’ve seen Smith look rattled. Jofra Archer had unleashed a barrage of bouncers to which he had no answer.
A bruised elbow, a few uncontrolled pulls and then the final nail in the coffin: a blow to the neck that ruled Smith out for the next Test. England had stopped Smith, albeit not in the manner that they would’ve liked.
Even though it ended with a pained Steven Smith on the floor, it was a small segment of play that had everyone captivated. It had to be seen to be appreciated; it was everything that Test cricket should be. The scoreboard won’t tell you that, but the millions that saw it on television and the thousands that witnessed it at Lord’s will.
But as it turns out, the clean-up job done by Archer had only short-term implications. One and a half Tests later, Smith once again turned up in a time of crisis and brought back the demons that England thought they had got rid of.
If he had looked rattled at Lord’s, Smith was assured, unfazed and poised at Manchester. As he toyed around with the bowlers in what was yet another imperious solo act, I realized that we’re quite possibly witnessing the best there has been since Don Bradman.
The ability to stand tall in the face of adversity time and again is what sets Smith apart. From being pushed and shoved out of South Africa almost like a criminal to silencing the hostile English crowds by demonstrating one masterclass after the other, Smith’s journey to redemption is well and truly complete.
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