As we come to the conclusion of Ashes 2018-19, this is also the last in the series of articles on top Ashes legends, and we cannot even think of ending with any other Ashes superstar,specially after his astonishing form in the latest two ashes series which has taken Bradmanesque proportions. The list of the greatest ever ashes legends would be incomplete without the maverick Steven Peter Devereux Smith (SPD Smith).
Steven Smith had a very average start to his ashes career scoring 159 runs at 31.80 average in 3 tests with he played in the 2010-11 ashes in Australia , which England won by 3-1. It included a valiant innings of 54 notout in the 2nd dig at SCG which was played in a losing cause . No real indications on the shape of things to come.
Smith’s first ashes series in England happened in 2013 in which he scored 345 runs in 5 tests averaging 38 and it included a fine stroke filled 138 at Oval in a big partnership with Shane Watson (176) in the 5th test . The match was drawn and England took the series 3-0.
Finally Smith’s ambition to be a part of winning Ashes team got realised emphatically as Australia routed England in 2013-14 ashes 5-0 on the back of lethal fast bowling by Mitchel Johnson who took 37 wickets in that series. Smith , after an indifferent start to the series finally came good on a bouncy pitch at Perth where he rescued Australia in the first innings from a troubled 143/5 to 385 allout , himself scoring a superb 111. Another classic rescue act came at Sydney as Australia were tottering at 97/5 in 1st innings only for Smith to rescue the team with a strokeful 115 off 154 balls as the hosts reached 326. Smith scored 327 runs in the 2013-14 series averaging 40 .
Australia went with high hopes in 2015 ashes series in England but flattered to deceive. Johnson was not able to reproduce his 2013-14 form and the batting kept fumbling at crucial stages. However at Lords ,Australia looked brilliant and squared the series. Batting first Australia scored 566 and it was mainly possible due to Smith’s magnificient 215 and his big partnership with Chris Rogers (173). Smith batted at number 3 and looked in supreme control. Smith scored another quick 58 in 2nd innings as Australia proceeded to crush England at Lords. However lethal bowling by England fast bowlers routed Australia in the next two tests. In the final test at Oval Smith was back in his elements with a classy 143 as Australia proceeded to hammer England by an innings but that only helped in reducing the defeat margin to 2-3. Smith finally averaged 56 with 508 runs in that series. A shape of things to come ?
Finally Smith’s moment of glory came in the 2017-18 Ashes. Now the captain of Australia , Smith was in roaring form as he scored a marathon 141 notout off 326 balls in almost 9 hours at Gabba, rescuing the team from 76/4 and again 209/7 in reply to England’s first innings of 302. England bowlers bowled defensively to Smith putting fielders in his scoring areas trying to play on his patience , but Smith was prepared to work for his runs. Australia ,thanks to Smith 100 took a slender 26 run lead and finally won the match by 10 wickets after dismissing England cheaply in 2nd innings. Another similar marathon effort of 10 hours for his massive 239 at Perth coming a 55/2 in reply to England’s score of 403 put Australia ,out of England’s reach to win the 3rd test and take unassailable 3-0 lead in the series. Smith manufactured shots from his wierd total backfoot based technique. His uncanny ability to find gaps inspite of accurate field placing by England showed his class and his willingness to work for his runs. He was ready to fight for every run and was determined. Scores of 76 ,102 no and 83 followed in his remaining innngs of the series in which he averaged an astounding 137 for his 687 runs with 2 tons. His astonishing run of high scores in Ashes has already begun but the almighty also had few other things in store for him.
The ball tampering scandal surfaced in Cape Town test in South Africa soon after the 2017-18 Ashes and Smith lost 1 year of international cricket due to the ban imposed on him by Australia Cricket board. He was mentally hurt but kept playing T20 leagues to keep himself in shape. By the time the Ashes 2019 started he was back in reckoning. However the whole world was waiting to see how he shapes up on his return with the English crowd ready to make life difficult for him.
And how Smith responded? The first test was played at Egbaston and Australia batting first was reduced to 122/8 on the 1st day . Smith was the only man standing. That quirky technique was in evidence as he countered the strong English bowling attack in the company of Peter Siddle who gave him tremendous support in their match defining 88 run stand. His strong resilience and his uncanny ability to find gaps frustrated the English bowling attack and the strong partisan crowd as he reached his mentally most draining 100 of his reinstated test career in the company of number 11 Nathan Lyon. It was a great emotional moment for him which was evident from his celebrations. Soon after he batted in 5th gear scored rapidly in his 74 run last wicket stand with Lyon to take Australia to 284 on the very first day of the series with himself last out at 144. However his job was not finished as he again rescued Australia from a shaky start of 75/3 in their 2nd innings after they had conceded a 90 run 1st innings lead. Another brilliant century (142) this time ensured a big 4th innings target of 398 for England ,who capitulated for 146 to lose by 251 runs. Thus two rescue acts changed to match winning efforts and the redemption was complete for Steve Smith after going through hell for one year, but he was far from done with more twists in the tale.
In the 2nd test at Lords, in reply to England’s 258, Australia were struggling at 102/5 but again Smith came to the rescue and reached 70 before struck on the arm by debutant Jofra Archer who was bowling grenades at 94 mph.Little later at 80 he was hit a severe blow below the ear off Archer bouncer which felled him flat and he was withdrawn into the sheds .Reflections of Phil Hughes incident came flooding in as the capacity crowd was in a hush. He came back at the fall of next wicket and was lbw for 92. However overnight concussions made Australia withdraw him from the test on 5th day and later he was withdrawn from 3rd test also which Australia lost.
Smith was back in 4th test ,with few scores to settle and the series in balance at 1-1. He now has to show the world that the bouncer of Archer at Lords did not have any mental scars in his psyche. And how well he responded? Coming at 28/2, Smith came up with a fitting riposte, grinding the English bowling including Archer to pile up 211 with 24 fours and 2 sixes and took Australia close to 500. It was an innings to silence all murmurs and doubts if any. Again in 2nd innings England bowlers hit back hard reducing Australia to 44/4 in an effort to comeback after conceding 196 run deficit on 1st inngs. Again facing the new ball Smith hit 82 off 92 balls to put Australia out of danger and on the winning path which Aussies achieved on the last day to take 2-1 series lead.
Smith’s continued resilience to singlehandedly hold together ,the most fragile of Australian batting lineup for the ages continued in the 5th test at Oval. Again with 2 down for nothing he played another resilient knock of 80 as wickets fell around him. Finally in 2nd innings ,law of averages caught up with him with a cheap dismissal for 23 runs. Having averaged 110 (more than double than next best batsman of the series) with 774 runs in 4 tests in this series he has taken his batting to unthinkable heights with his quirky technique and his constant backfoot play ,bluffing the bowlers by make them bowl straight on his pads and manipulating the whole game while at crease. What’s more ,having played the new ball in each and every knock of his in this away series has made his achievements even more gigantic. Hence his comparisons with Sir Don had been inevitable.
For the record Smith is just 27 short of 7000 test runs with an insane average of 65 and in just 3 tests after his 1 year suspension he has snatched back his number 1 test ranking from Virat Kohli, who averages 10 less than Smith in tests !!! In Ashes contests Smith scored 2800 runs at 65 average with 11 tons (in England 1627 runs in 14 tests at 61 average with 6 tons)
On batting front Steven Smith is well on his way to become the greatest Ashes legend since Don Bradman. No other Aussie has carried such an underperforming batting line up on his shoulders singlehandedly with the possible exception of Border in the 1980s. Smith is not only saving Australia but also winning tests for them and is having even more impact. It has been a fairytale ride specially the last 18 months. Tremendous powers of resilience , mental strength and great batting skills. Yes the greatest Ashes batting legend since the Don without an iota of doubt.