Steve Smith on the field
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Cover Story

The adaptable Mr Smith

Is he a leggie? Is he a batsman? Is he an allrounder? No, he's the new captain of Australia

Daniel Brettig |

August 11, 2015, Wantage Road, Northampton: Australia's thwarted tourists have arrived to train ahead of a tour match that feels like purgatory. Three days to contemplate how they contrived to lose the Ashes. It will also be, effectively, the first match of Steven Smith's captaincy. The formal announcement of his ascension to the Australian captaincy, to replace Michael Clarke, will take place on the rained-out first day. In this sleepy, featureless patch of the East Midlands, the pain of defeat mingles with the anxiety of change.

Before fielding drills and nets, the coach, Darren Lehmann, and the chairman of selectors, Rod Marsh, direct the squad towards the middle of the outfield for a meeting that is at once public and private. Only Marsh, Lehmann and the players are present. Clarke is in London, mentally retired. Brad Haddin too is missing, having flown home early. A stern semi-circle of players lock eyes upon the gnarled features of Marsh and Lehmann, who take turns speaking. At their side, also staring down the players, is the fresher face of Smith.

Quite apart from the result, there have been issues on this trip that need thrashing out. The muddled circumstances around Haddin's non-selection after he withdrew from the Lord's Test for family reasons have not sat well with senior players, leaving Lehmann at odds with them for more or less the first time since his appointment. Team selection for the fateful Trent Bridge Test has also been a point of contention among players who cannot understand why Mitchell Marsh was dropped for his brother Shaun on match morning, while Peter Siddle was left out in conditions ideal for his seaming fast-medium. A matter of weeks before, this team had been happy and confident. Now they are neither.

In conversation he reminds you more of Ponting than of Clarke, yet on the field he has the New South Welshman's nimbler tendencies

Out of the meeting several threads emerge. The selectors admit fault for numerous missteps but also reiterate that they cannot go out and do the job for the players. Similarly the players recognise they have erred at times, and resolve to think more deeply about the challenges ahead.

Recalling that day when we speak some weeks later, Smith says it was a trigger for reflection and, ultimately, realisation. For one, he was able to work out how he had been dismissed so cheaply in the four most important innings of his career to date - scores of 7, 8, 6 and 5 arguably the greatest single factor in a pair of humiliating defeats. Ricky Ponting reckoned Smith's signature movement across the crease was out of sync. In Northampton, Smith found this to be true.

"Throughout the Ashes I was moving a little late, and I didn't pick it until after the fourth Test, that I wasn't ready for the ball in a way," Smith says. "Then I got back at The Oval and felt good again, where my movement was a bit earlier and I was still, ready to play the ball."

Back in the saddle: at the end of day one at The Oval this year, on his way to 143

Back in the saddle: at the end of day one at The Oval this year, on his way to 143 © Getty Images

A lesson learned too late, one suspects, is not something Smith wants to turn into a habit. On the contrary, his rise to the captaincy has largely been a case of picking things up quickly, whether advice from others or tricks gleaned through bruising experience. As his country's youngest Test captain in more than 35 years, helming a team shorn of enormous know-how, Smith has no option but to keep learning fast.

"In my view he's just not ready for this level of cricket," Terry Jenner thunders down the phone to me. It's December 2009 and Smith has been called into the Australian squad for the first time as cover for a sore Nathan Hauritz before a Test against West Indies in Perth. Hauritz would prove his fitness and play, but Smith would hang around the team for much of the next 18 months, showing glimpses of something special. What that was exactly remained a mystery to many.

Jenner had been adamant Smith would blossom into a world-class legspinner if given adequate time and space. The selectors evidently heard the first part of Jenner's prognostication but not the second, pitching Smith into the national team when his bowling barely qualified as embryonic. Once selected, the hierarchy quickly concluded that Smith was in fact a batting allrounder, but they were compelled to use him as a spinner in the absence of other choices.

As his country's youngest Test captain in more than 35 years, Smith has no option but to keep learning fast

"I think we all thought he was eventually going to be a batsman, but the view from the selectors was that he could be the next really bright, shining light as far as spin bowling was concerned," Ponting once said. "A bit like Cameron White when he came in for his first few games. Everyone hopes they're going to turn into the next Shane Warne, and it very rarely turns out that way."

So it was that Smith batted No. 8 against Pakistan in two Tests in England in 2010, bowling presentably but leaving a more indelible impression with a daredevil 77 in the second innings at Headingley. Australia were sentenced to lose after being razed for 88 on the first day, but the quality of Smith's eye was not in doubt: here was the prodigy who had set all manner of records for Sutherland in Sydney grade cricket, then clattered Sheffield Shield attacks, and had earlier that year carried off the Steve Waugh Medal. Around this time the New South Wales chief executive David Gilbert drew a comparison between medallist and medal.

"He could captain Australia," Gilbert told the Herald Sun. "He won't be the next Warne, but in time he will be a very good legspin bowler. I played with Steve Waugh in his debut first-class game against Queensland in 1984. He had this belief in his ability and Steve Smith is the same. They are both quiet, they don't make waves and rock the boat, they do the job and their self-belief is what takes them a long way."

Role model: Smith has spoken about how important it was for him to watch Ponting up close

Role model: Smith has spoken about how important it was for him to watch Ponting up close © Getty Images

Smith's self-belief manifested itself in other ways on that tour, not always smoothly. He butted heads verbally with the batting coach Justin Langer, who stressed the need for technical and mental refinement. A more literal collision took place at the 2011 World Cup, when he and Ponting went for the same high catch. Upon completing the take, Ponting hurled the ball to the ground in obvious anger at Smith ignoring his call. That incident hurt, because it was Ponting from whom Smith gathered most of his CliffsNotes.

"For me it was about trying to find my way," Smith says. "It was great to be able to come in and play with Ricky Ponting. That was a big one, watching the way he did everything, how he went about his business, trained, spoke to people, his general demeanour around the group."

Andrew Strauss' highly drilled England were the measure for that Australian side, and in 2010-11, Smith fell as far short as the rest. When chosen for Perth, his audacity looked foolish against the probing lines of James Anderson, Chris Tremlett and Steven Finn, while a seldom hidden relish for swatting across the line left many wondering what had become of Australian batsmanship. Smith admits now that he was asked questions he had never had to ponder before.

I flew home with plenty of thoughts about where Australian cricket was going. None of them had Smith near the office of national team captain

"Being able to see what I needed to do at international level, to get worked over quite a bit by the English bowlers, it helped me a lot going back to state cricket. One of the things I took out was, I needed to know where my off stump is and to be patient early, to build an innings. Those were things that I probably didn't do as well or really at all when I first started."

Smith made an impish fifty at the end of Australia's third innings defeat for the summer. His inclusion in the ODI and T20 teams left him with an inordinately high Cricket Australia contract ranking on the same day selectors chose to jettison Simon Katich. When Katich spoke acidly of "rules for some and rules for others" and about players being picked on potential over-performance, most looked towards Smith. When a new selection panel was ushered in by the Argus review, Smith slid quickly back in their reckoning.

As Rod Marsh put it to me last summer: "When we first became selectors [in November 2011] he wasn't a good enough bowler, he wasn't a good enough batsman, but he certainly was a good enough fieldsman. All he had to do was improve his batting and bowling - a lot easier said than done."

At the time of Smith's emergence, I was a reporter for Australian Associated Press, making one cricket tour a year amid assignments to cover AFL, golf, tennis, basketball and much else. I first interviewed Smith in Chandigarh at the start of a two-Test tour of India towards the end of 2010. It was fair to say that as a speaker he had plenty of rough edges. Softly spoken and limited of expression, he wasn't particularly eager to talk about his bowling, even though he was essentially on the tour as a back-up spinner.

Steve, not Mark: Smith takes a wicket in the 2007-08 KFC Twenty20

Steve, not Mark: Smith takes a wicket in the 2007-08 KFC Twenty20 © Getty Images

We crossed paths again in Bangladesh after the 2011 World Cup, a short ODI-only tour that was Clarke's first taste of full-time captaincy. Smith was carrying an ankle injury that would keep him out of the subsequent IPL. I remember his face screwing up when I told him I'd be writing a brief dispatch about the injury, as though he did not quite grasp the concept of such news needing to be public knowledge.

At that time he still looked as likely to become a legspinner as a batsman. High above the bowler's arm at the Shere Bangla National Stadium, I came across Greg Matthews, the former Australia offspinner, working as a commentator. "Mo" enthused about Smith's legbreak, observations given weight when he landed one perfectly to fizz between the bat and pad of Shakib Al Hasan. Little was said about his batting, and it was a surprise when Smith was promoted to No. 4 for the third match. As he wandered down the pitch and bunted a return catch to Suhrawadi Shuvo for 5, Matthews groaned. "What a wasted opportunity!"

One training day he appeared alongside Callum Ferguson in a brief video, in which Smith spoke about naming his batting gloves after racehorses, in the fashion of Cameron White. Ferguson's confidence contrasted sharply with Smith's diffidence, beneath a shock of bleached hair that looked like one of those follicular experiments that is inevitably regretted in hindsight. While Ferguson complimented Smith on the hairdo, a pithy YouTube commenter summed up the look - and Smith's international impact thus far: "When did the kid from Glee join the Aussie cricket team?"

"Everyone hopes they're going to turn into the next Shane Warne, and it very rarely turns out that way" Ricky Ponting

I flew home with plenty of thoughts about where Australian cricket was going. None of them had Smith near the office of national team captain.

The summer of 2011-12 was a glorious one for Clarke, a 4-0 sweep of India and a monumental 329 not out at the SCG embossing his name on the captaincy. A few kilometres away in Coogee, Smith moved quietly into a beachside apartment, and slowly set about building a method that would make him a Test batsman. He also worked at shedding some puppy fat and sorting out that haircut.

In the Shield, Smith did not reprise the starburst of hundreds from two years before, but he made a succession of handy tallies that were more convincing watched live than on the scorecard. The earlier impulsiveness was gradually ebbing away, replaced by a more stable outlook and greater awareness of the off stump. At that stage Chris Rogers thought Smith was learning faster than contemporaries like Usman Khawaja and Phillip Hughes.

With partner and confidant Dani Willis

With partner and confidant Dani Willis © Getty Images

The inaugural Big Bash League found Smith leading Sydney Sixers under the tutelage of Trevor Bayliss. His instincts were endorsed by a victorious campaign during which some significant events took place. One, the former fast bowler Stuart Clark told the Australian, was Smith standing up to Stuart MacGill when the Sixers' irascible legspinner complained about being assigned far-flung fielding posts. "Look mate, I am the captain, you do what I say," the kid reportedly told the veteran, "Now f*** off and get down there." MacGill did as ordered, and team-mates were impressed.

More important still was a night out at a backpacker's bar near Sydney's Central Station. Catching Smith's eye was a law student called Dani Willis. Before the evening ended they had struck up a rapport that would evolve into a relationship. By the following season Dani was on the road with Smith for a Shield trip to Perth. The equanimity with which he met a first-innings duck ("They happen, what would you like for dinner?") suggested this was the right kind of partnership.

Smith keeps close to a select group of friends and family to discuss life and cricket, hoping for honest advice and the occasional "kick up the backside". Among them he counts his dad Peter, his manager Warren Craig, his cricketing mentor Haddin, Mark Taylor, and now Dani. She is among the most highly valued.

Under the surface Smith's heart still beat with the pride of an outrageous talent, and his mind buzzed with the thoughts of a natural tinkerer

Dani watches Smith's media appearances and offers pointers on public speaking. She also appears occasionally at nets to feed the bowling machine, something she did the first time Smith felt like a bat after Phillip Hughes died. Smith has tried to help Dani's progress by testing her on legal concepts and cases around exam times. Having duly expanded his vocabulary, it is little wonder Smith's public persona has gained appreciably in polish.

It helped that Smith was now sure of where his game needed to grow. No matter what selectors, commentators or coaches thought, he was not going to become an elite legspinner, but he might have a chance as a batsman. In September 2012 he told me: "Runs is my main priority at the moment, I'm working really hard on my batting. I believe to get back into the team it's through my batting."

His Shield scores remained consistent rather than spectacular, and he played only one international match that summer. On a seamer-friendly pitch in Adelaide, Smith faced just 11 balls against Sri Lanka before succumbing to a loose drive. But there was enough to think he was close to working it out. He was noticeably tighter, his bat coming through straighter, and the trademark fidgets were only visible before and after delivery. This was, of course, the summer of Rob Quiney's much-lauded 9 on debut against South Africa, but Smith's 8 had me enthused enough to think: he's got this.

Headingley 2010: and they brought him in as a bowler

Headingley 2010: and they brought him in as a bowler © Getty Images

Selection for the 2013 Test squad to India granted Smith the chance to find out whether he was ready. When not chosen for the XI, he used his time productively.

"For me, one of the big learning curves was batting in the nets while the games were going on," Smith says. "There were a couple of days there where I had Diva [Michael Di Venuto, the batting coach] out the back, giving me a few throwdowns during the first two Test matches I didn't play, and I was facing net bowlers for a couple of hours. Doing that I learned so much about playing spin.

"There were so many different bowlers, guys who bowl cross-seam balls and bowl side-spinning balls where some skid and some spin. That taught me a bit about understanding how the ball was going to react off the surface - that's pretty important playing in those conditions."

Smith's first Test since January 2011 was played against the backdrop of the Mohali suspensions. His 92 showcased a batsman entering maturity, even if it was overshadowed by the pyrotechnics of Shikhar Dhawan. Smith believes it was not until the following summer and a hundred against England in Perth that he felt he belonged, but Mohali was the first time he truly looked the part. Importantly, it was a good example of adaptation.

"He wasn't a good enough bowler, he wasn't a good enough batsman, but he certainly was a good enough fieldsman. All he had to do was improve his batting and bowling" Rod Marsh

"The word I used when I addressed the boys first was 'adapting'," he says. "I said, the boys are going to hear me saying that a lot - making sure we're adapting to everything we're faced with. In the Ashes as a batting group or as a whole really, we didn't adapt to these conditions as well as we could have, and that hurt us.

"I think you have your plans, but when you get under pressure you get back to what you know and what you've learned, what you've grown up with. So you have to try to get away from that as much as possible to make sure that when you're under pressure you're able to do what you've practised."

Having ironed out numerous kinks and ticks in his batting method, Smith found himself able to score consistently. The apogee of this approach was an even 100 against South Africa on a dicey surface at Centurion Park. Where once there had been a shot a ball, now there was something approaching austerity, as Smith left the ball patiently, waiting for errors and choosing carefully when to attack the spinners.

Smith got a taste of captaincy early in his career, leading Sydney Sixers in the BBL

Smith got a taste of captaincy early in his career, leading Sydney Sixers in the BBL © Getty Images

Under the surface Smith's heart still beat with the pride of an outrageous talent, and his mind buzzed with the thoughts of a natural tinkerer. He wanted to be able to adapt across formats and pitches. He had watched AB de Villiers at close quarters, noting how he gained power and balance from a trigger movement across the crease. Smith tried it first at the WACA against England, and found his pull shots skating across the turf with increasing regularity.

He returned to the movement in the UAE against Pakistan. There would be no hundred in two Tests, but an ODI century in Sharjah added impetus to his journey across the crease.

"When the ball was swinging in, I started moving both legs across and opening my front leg up a bit more, to give me more access. Then I started doing that in Dubai when the ball was reversing, to make sure I was able to defend it, and if it was full I'd clip it off my pads or drive it, or if it was short, get into it but make sure I was able to defend my stumps."

Smith believes it was not until the following summer and a hundred against England in Perth that he felt he belonged, but Mohali was the first time he truly looked the part

In the nakedly emotional home summer of Hughes' death, Smith's stand-to-attention footwork left India at a loss. He made hundreds in all four Tests while leading Australia in three. He acknowledged Hughes touchingly in Adelaide but showed himself capable of focusing on the next ball more effectively than any other team-mate. No one has made more runs in a four-Test series than Smith.

The wellspring of centuries coincided with another addition to the Smith routine, thanks to a conversation with the now retired AFL player Adam Goodes. "Adam told me that if he wins a game or something like that, he rewards himself with a block of chocolate," Smith says. "I've got a pretty sweet tooth and try to be pretty good with my diet, so if I get a hundred I reward myself with a big block of Dairy Milk. I only started doing it a year ago, so it's been nice to get a few blocks in!"

Of course, Smith was aware of the greater risk that came with his pursuit of greater reward. There will be times, as in the Ashes, that his movements do not gel. He also flirted with moving too far across during the World Cup, before settling things down in time to contribute to Australia's valedictory victory for Clarke.

So what will Steven Smith's captaincy look like? He is the first Australian captain to have grown up in the age of T20, the first to take more than a passing interest in the IPL, and the first to fashion a Twitter hashtag (admittedly #justenjoyingit didn't really go viral). He wants to show a pragmatic streak not always evident in Clarke's time, and to master a means of playing on slower pitches that will bring overdue success away from home. With tours of Sri Lanka and India looming in the next 18 months, it is the smart play.

The year of living plentifully: Smith in the SCG dressing room during the 2014-15 series against India, in which he made 769 runs

The year of living plentifully: Smith in the SCG dressing room during the 2014-15 series against India, in which he made 769 runs © Getty Images

"In places like Dubai or India, subcontinent pitches, the new ball's probably the best time to bat," he says. "So I think with the new ball you can bowl attacking but with more defensive fields, and if you pick up wickets with the new ball, it's almost a bonus. Then when you get the ball reversing or spinning, you can bring everyone in and start attacking.

"That's the sort of philosophy I'm going to take to my captaincy in those conditions. There's certainly times when you can be a little more defensive. New ball in Australia, South Africa, England - first innings anyway - are probably the toughest times to bat, and it gets a little easier as the ball gets older. So you can get a bit more defensive when the ball's older, but again my word to use a lot will be 'adapting'."

Relationships and personalities will be as important. Smith is close to Haddin but adamant that off-field disagreements or discontents cannot be allowed to cloud over performance. Having grown up as a cricketer in an era of numerous personality clashes, he wants his team to forge a closeness that has sometimes been lacking in the past. One team member says there is hope that Smith will meld "the tactics of Clarke with the strong relationships of Ponting".

Where once there had been a shot a ball, now in Centurion there was something approaching austerity, as Smith left the ball patiently, waiting for errors

That is a scenario within the realm of the possible. Smith has developed enormously over the past five years. There is self-knowledge and tact where once there were questions and missteps. His thoughtfulness about the game has been allied to a respectfulness of others, both within the team and without. Tetchy topics like Ben Stokes' run-out at Lord's, the sensitivities of the postponed Bangladesh tour, or the day-night Test have all been handled with a composure conspicuously lacking when he first started speaking publicly.

In conversation he reminds you more of Ponting than of Clarke, yet on the field he has the New South Welshman's nimbler tendencies. He is undoubtedly ambitious but understands the need to take others along with him. When he was formally announced as captain, Smith continued to interact with all around him as though little had changed. He will bring a sense of normalcy to the role, an undramatic manner not apt for cameras but ideal for dressing rooms.

This will be all the more vital considering the state of flux his team will be in. Turning over players and trying to unearth new talent will occur much as when Smith was himself injected into the national team, prior to his own readiness. Bangladesh was a lost chance to begin the process but relationships can begin to form in more familiar climes before being tested in crucibles overseas.

A guiding hand: Haddin has been a mentor figure to Smith

A guiding hand: Haddin has been a mentor figure to Smith © Getty Images

"It probably is the toughest part. All the on-field stuff is probably easier," Smith says. "Not everyone's going to get on. There's going to be times when there'll be arguments. We're together for pretty much 300 days of the year, so it's going to happen."

One place Smith will measure this is at training, away from the adrenaline-charged atmosphere of matches where players have been known to share warm embraces and handshakes while not speaking to one another off the field. He will be looking for an eagerness among his men to take up challenges, like batting on difficult practice wickets.

"If we rock up to a training session and the wicket's green, a bit spicy, and our bowlers are licking their lips... it's about making sure me and Davey [Warner], the senior guys, can get in there first and take it on and show the guys how to do it. I'm pretty big on that. I don't think there's any greater satisfaction than coming out of a net having not got out. If you can do that, then out in the middle everything's going to be a lot easier."

While we've been talking, Smith has missed two calls from Haddin. A few minutes later Haddin is back on the line, informing Smith that he will be joining Clarke and Watson in retirement. Now Mitchell Johnson has joined them. In recent times only Kim Hughes, Allan Border and Graham Yallop have led such inexperienced teams. How they fare will depend an awful lot on how quickly Smith can teach them.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

 

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