Steve Smith’s masterful century against England – his first of the summer – was a compelling demonstration of all the attributes that make him one of the finest batsmen of this or any other era.
Something quietly momentous took place at Southampton this weekend. Steve Smith took guard again for Australia. He held his bat up straight, asked for leg stump, and scratched out his guard. He surveyed the field and twiddled his blade. And then, a shade over two hours later, he turned to his dressing room and raised it.
As ever with Smith when he bats, there was a lot going on. But it wasn’t just the flawlessness of his approach that stood out. Nor the clarity of thought that marked his every move. Nor will the innings be remembered for the gradual increase through the latter part of the innings, a study in one-day batsmanship. There was something else taking place. A sense of renewal; of clearing the decks and starting afresh.
"Try telling the crowd of 11,441 packed into Southampton’s verdant bowl that this see-sawing scrap between cricket’s oldest foes was nothing more than a warm-up." 👀— Cricket World Cup (@cricketworldcup) May 26, 2019
Here's our #ENGvAUS warm-up match report 👇https://t.co/Nga33bTc5p
It was all the things that mark the best of him. Simultaneously creative and risk-free, interspersing jaw-dropping skill with steady accumulation. The trademark cover-drive, skidding across the turf, to get him going. The checked back-foot punch, newly polished and in full cry, stitched together by the relentless flick to leg, a shot he may have missed in a previous life but certainly not in this one.
As for the good deliveries, he just smothered them, the blade whirring across his body, the mind still abuzz, long after the deadening sureness of the block itself. Was he nervous? "Not really. I don’t get that nervous when I’m waiting to bat, I’m just excited to be honest. I felt good from the start."
He cruised to fifty in 52 balls. And when the switch was flicked, out came the funkiness, propelling him to three figures in a spree of boundaries, a ramped maximum over his left shoulder and one lofted six off the back foot that defied comprehension. The bowler, Ben Stokes, just shook his head.
At ease again in the shirt that has defined his life, Smith's final six, lofted imperiously down the ground, felt like a declaration of intent.
There were a few pockets of the crowd that let him know they were there. This was not unexpected. But by the end of his innings, any carping had long been drowned out by the warmth of applause. Cricket fans always come around to genius in the end.
Afterwards, he settled down to give his take. “I heard a few things as I went out to bat,” he admitted, a gentle smile forming on his face. “But it doesn’t get to me. I know I’ve got the support of my teammates. If I can make them proud and Australians proud then that’s my goal.”
Smith is famously inscrutable in the middle. His personal Ashes of 2017-18 was a masterwork: blocking out noise, eliminating pressure, batting time, playing the moment. “Today was just a case of getting my head down and doing my job.” It was ever thus.
"I'm not reading too much into it,” he said. "Hopefully I can keep this form for the real stuff. But I am feeling good, composed at the crease and hitting the right balls to the boundary.”
He was asked about his dismissal in the last over, which caused some conjecture. “How did I get out again?” he asked genuinely. He’d already forgotten. Put it away. Mentally he was already batting again.
He knows this is just a start. Smith’s year out of the game has afforded him the chance to take stock. To ask himself a few questions that he wouldn’t have otherwise had cause or time to consider. “I guess having a year to reflect and do some different things that I'd never done before has been eye-opening,” he said.
"Genius – what a player!"— Cricket World Cup (@cricketworldcup) May 25, 2019
Steve Smith starred with the bat for Australia with a brilliant century in their #CWC19 warm-up match against England – and his former skipper was full of praise for him! pic.twitter.com/ncQtTuhjQj
“It’s been satisfying to know I was making a difference to other people. I’ve certainly grown as a person,” he said. "That’s for sure.” The culmination of his time working in “the mental health space” was a TV advert which aired in December to raise awareness of mental health issues in young people. He donated his fee for the advert to charity.
Smith knows there is a way to go. This is just the first foray into what will be a long, hot and at times volatile summer. But he’s back doing what he was born to do.
“I feel in good shape," he said. "I just want to be ready for the big dance.” The floor is his again.