In 2017, Steve Smith began what can now be mapped as his highest batting peak. Three centuries in four Tests while leading a tour of India, a feat no visiting captain has bettered, while holding his team in the series until a final defeat 2-1. Then home for an Ashes series that he opened with a match-winning hundred at Brisbane, followed with a double in Perth, and sealed with a hundred in Sydney, winning 4-0 with 687 runs at an average of over 137. Three months later came the Cape Town sandpaper affair, and his year-long ban ended up being an absence from Test cricket of 16 months.
What has happened since has been the waste of Smith, the squandering by Cricket Australia of their most extraordinary batting talent since Don Bradman.
On his return from the ban in 2019, he managed four Tests in England for the Ashes and five in the home summer. Then the world galloped into the pandemic era, and cricket in some countries shut down. Smith had a break of nearly a year – the same stretch as the ban that had once seemed so onerous – before CA deigned to host India for four Tests in 2020-21. Then another year of waiting before this home season began.
The pandemic itself is a smokescreen here. Australia cancelled two Test tours in that time: two matches in Bangladesh and three in South Africa. This was already baked into the proposed touring programme by an administration that wanted to reduce the Test footprint, pulling back home seasons to five matches instead of six, and keeping overseas trips minimal. While England had plans to play 12, 15, even 17 Tests in a year, Australia’s schedule was for seven or eight.
It was and remains an astounding approach to the game for an administration that already knew it had one of the game’s greats in its ranks. From his breakthrough Ashes in 2013, four and a bit years at the crease brought Smith 57 matches and 23 Test centuries. From his ban in 2018 until the start of the current Ashes, nearly four years has meant 13 matches and four centuries. Four years ago, Smith looked a certainty to surge past Ricky Ponting’s 41 centuries at the top of the Australian tree. Now, he remains on 27, exceptional but still short of what his talent could have achieved.
For a while on the second day of the Adelaide Test, Smith was back exactly where he should be. In the middle of a Test match on a baking hot day, fighting for ascendancy in a match where his performance would be central to Australia’s hopes. It was a situation favouring Australia, with Smith resuming on 18 with the score at 221 for two. But the work still had to be done, and after a morning session in which England finally held catches, bowled legal deliveries, and took three for 90, the work fell to Smith.
In contrast to Marnus Labuschagne’s 103, which got more scrappy as it went on, and which ended soon after the start of play after a series of reprieves, Smith’s 93 did not offer a chance until his dismissal. The closest England came were a couple of edges that were bounced into the slip cordon from soft hands. Through the rest of 200 deliveries until James Anderson trapped him leg before, Smith was in total control.
The most prominent part of his game was his leaving, knowing that the thermometer was past 37 degrees and that England’s bowlers were suffering through every over. Anything that Smith did not like was ignored, as he stepped across his stumps to inspect balls travelling by to the wicketkeeper. Anything that looked useful he would knock into a gap of his choosing. Occasionally, when he did fancy something more than most others, he would play a shot that was audacious either for its conventionality or the absence of it.
Stuart Broad was pulled, James Anderson was cut, Joe Root was driven through the covers, as precisely as you like. But equally, when Smith was so minded, he might flap a delivery over slip. With a leg-theory field, he hooked Ben Stokes over the wicketkeeper. One entirely respectable length ball from Chris Woakes was swivel-pulled into the seats of the Max Basheer stand.
By the time Smith was done, just before the end of the second session, Australia had 385 on the board, England had bowled 139 overs, and the five hottest sessions of the match had been played out. All that was left was for Australia’s bowlers to bash a few runs, then put England in and take a couple of wickets. The script was duly followed.
At the centre of it, as so often in the past, was Steve Smith. The question of whether he should be allowed to captain Australia again remains live, and the doubts on that score have merit. As a pure player though, he was exactly where he should have been, so much more often, through years that have now been lost.