Steve Smith: Why Australia's batting hero is more than just a cricket obsessive
|Men's Ashes 2019: England v Australia, second Specsavers Test|
|Venue: Lord's Dates: 14-18 August Start time: 11:00 BST|
|Coverage: Ball-by-ball Test Match Special commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, Radio 4 LW, BBC Sport website & app. In-play highlights and live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app|
If you'd never seen him play before, you might have looked at Steve Smith batting at Edgbaston and asked "Who on earth is this?"
A batsman who twitched between deliveries as though suffering mild electric shock. A batsman who wandered with apparent aimlessness while the ball was bowled. A batsman who remained unbeaten, scoring and scoring again, while those around him with conventional approaches fell away.
If you'd started watching Test cricket recently then you might never have seen Smith play. You would have fallen in love with the game while a disciplinary suspension - for his part in 2018's ball-tampering scandal - cost him 16 months out of it.
From a home-team perspective, the same question would have arisen: who is this? How did he learn to play this way? What is he doing to England, and can someone please make him stop?
'A cricket machine with a human interior'
We can't help with that last question. With the others, Steven Peter Devereux Smith is most frequently depicted as a cricketing machine, implacably calculating velocities and angles. But, on the contrary, there is an entirely human interior.
As Smith explained in his book The Journey, published when he was on top of the world before that suspension, being Australia captain meant surviving scrutiny.
It meant learning that "there was a camera on me at all times, either television or photography, and so I had to control my emotions to a far greater degree than I was used to doing… my answer was to push my hands deep into my pockets and squeeze my thumbs hard. I found it offered a little relief for any pent-up feelings."
He's still terrible at hiding them. When he doesn't hit a shot where he means to, he gestures angrily at the intended gap. When he's dismissed, he shouts himself off the field. When he's fielding and an edge flies safely, he groans and knots his fingers over his head.
Smith is far from a robot. He's just emotionally attuned to cricket above anything. Take the 2018 Ashes Test in Sydney, when Mitchell Marsh struck his hundredth run and tried to stop mid-pitch to hug his brother Shaun. They were so caught up in the moment that they nearly caused a run-out.
On the players' balcony, every Australia player laughed. Except Smith, who panicked, pointing wildly at the end of the pitch, yelling for the players to get back to their ground. Of course they couldn't hear him, and Australia had a massive lead, but nothing was more distressing to him than the possibility that someone might not be playing cricket perfectly.
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'An obsessive focus from an early age'
This emotion gives Smith incredible focus. He's probably genuine when he says he didn't notice England supporters jeering during Australia's first-Test win at Edgbaston last week, because all he was aware of was his own batting.
It's only when that concentration pauses that emotions break through. When he spoke to the BBC's Jonathan Agnew about his comeback century, Smith said: "My first thought was, don't burst into tears."
It reflected an innings that his parents recalled way back when he was playing under-10s cricket, when he assumed his run-machine form to make 93 not out in a run chase while battling dehydration on a scorching day, then became a child again and cried torrents after sealing the win.
Right from this age, Smith had the same obsessive focus. It would take him two hours to choose a bat, and he didn't care which brand was being endorsed by which player. It was all about the pick-up of the bat, how it felt in his hands.
|First Test: Australia won by 251 runs|
|Second Test: 14-18 August, Lord's|
|Third Test: 22-26 August, Headingley|
|Fourth Test: 4-8 September, Old Trafford|
|Fifth Test: 12-16 September, The Oval|
Smith's father Peter explained his junior regime: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were an hour's training with Dad. The local club had training on Tuesday and a 50-over game on Saturday, while the shire junior association trained on Thursday with a 50-over game on Sunday. Sometimes after a match Steve would ask for another hour with Peter.
A kid who hadn't started high school had cricket seven days a week, including 200 overs on the field. As he progressed to his mid-teens, senior grade cricket came into the picture as well.
"When I wasn't around he used to go into our garage at home and hit a ball that I'd suspended from a beam in the ceiling," said Peter. "In the end I had to place a piece of board over a part of that ceiling that had been pock-marked and worn away by the ball…"
'You don't want to be in Smith's head'
Smith was lucky to have a father who could bowl inswing, outswing, medium pace, off-breaks and leg-breaks, to keep testing him against different styles.
Indoor cricket taught Smith to flick off his stumps to the leg side, a trait that exhausts England bowlers to this day. His proficiency against spin may have started with a shaved-down bat against a composite ball that skidded or skipped up on paving stones in his backyard, meaning he had to watch carefully out of the hand and off the surface.
His obsession with kit was demonstrated in his teenage stint in England, when he strewed a club kit to all corners to find pads that were worn enough, gloves roomy enough, a bat light enough. But he made a hundred and won them the game.
That relentless focus continued during his year's suspension, banned from all Australian international and domestic cricket. The Indian Premier League gave him the boot and there was a strong implication that English county cricket would also block him.
So Smith played wherever he could. The Canada Global T20 tournament in Toronto. The Caribbean Premier League. The Bangladesh Premier League. First-grade cricket in Sydney, in red-ball and white-ball forms.
In many ways it seemed an opportunity missed, with Smith passing up the chance to get out of cricket and broaden his horizons. An ongoing issue in his life has been the absence of much else.
He left school early after deciding it was "a waste of time". His online posts are the definition of anodyne. When his agent once told him to get a hobby, Smith bought shares in a couple of horses that he has never seen race.
In recent years he's had the odd hobby, like flying a camera drone or playing guitar, but nothing that has seemed major. He's well liked by team-mates, and is sufficiently social outside extra sessions in the nets, but he's more likely to reflect a group's agenda than set it.
His colleagues have always found his methods amusing: the extra batting, the kit bag full of gloves, the moves. When Smith was asked at Edgbaston why he added an elaborate flourish to some of his leaves, fellow centurion Matthew Wade jumped in.
"Dangerous question trying to get in Smudge's head," he laughed. "You don't want to be in there."
At the same time, his team-mates for that Test were full of admiration and awe at his twin centuries in his first match back. Perhaps most telling was bowler James Pattinson, who said that, while he was impressed, he wasn't surprised. He thought it was exactly the kind of thing Smith would do.
And why not? The kid who faced hundreds of thousands of deliveries had the best chance. And once he returned from his break, he was still the most prolific scorer per match since Sir Donald Bradman, continuing on his way.