Steven Davies is batting for England against Australia. It is the 14th January 2011 and it is the second match of a T20i series between both sides. Davies receives an innocuous delivery from David Hussey. He pulls the ball towards cow-corner. It’s running freely to the boundary, destined to shake hands with the rope. The Australian fielder stationed at long-on begs to differ. He bursts into sprint and hurls himself at the ball to save his side two runs. It’s an astounding piece of athleticism. The brilliance of all of it is emphasised by the fact that the fielder is mic’d up to the commentary box. You can hear him panting when he runs. You can hear the thud when his body hits the ground. You can hear the grunt when he makes the return throw to the wicket-keeper. The fielder has winded himself in the process but he laughs it off. The fielder is Steve Smith.
That is my first memory of watching Smith. It’s also his only memorable moment of the match. In the Australian innings, he walks in to bat at seven, with his side needing a hard-hitting cameo to finish with a strong total. He can only muster 13 off 18 balls. As England bat, he watches on as the spin of Hussey and Steve O’Keefe is preferred over his leg-breaks. My first memory of Steve Smith is not one of him belting out a half-decent Warne impression. Nor is it of an idiosyncratic run-machine, which is what he will become in the next few years. On the 14th January 2011, Steve Smith is to me what every number eleven in club cricket is. He is a specialist fielder.
It is January 2013 and I can safely say that I haven’t thought of Steve Smith for two years. He has disappeared from my cricketing radar, his fleeting moment of fielding brilliance pocketed somewhere at the back of my brain. He returns to my conscious when he is selected in a 17-man Test squad to tour India. He is selected as a back-up batsman and it seems that he is the 17th most likely to get a game.
Cue the drama that is Homeworkgate, and Smith finds himself as a Test batsman, coming in at five in the third test. Australian cricket is a laughing stock on and off the pitch. Now the specialist fielder is a part of the Australian middle-order. The specialist fielder whose batting technique would make the authors of the MCC coaching manual cringe. The specialist fielder whose leg-breaks are now just a fancy accessory, not the main deal. That same specialist fielder finds a way to make 92 in his comeback innings. The specialist fielder is now a Test batsman.
Australia have confounded all expectations in the recently concluded Test series against India. Despite losing 2-1, they have put up a valiant fight that few expected. At the forefront of that has been Smith. Four years on, he is Australia’s captain. He is also the best Test batsman in the world.
Over the course of the last three years, debate has ranged around the emergence of four extraordinary batting talents. There is the understated Kiwi that is Kane Williamson. There is England’s newly appointed Test-skipper Joe Root. Then there is the genius that is Virat Kohli. Smith has sat alongside these batsmen for the last three years, but his performances on this tour have moved him beyond the stratosphere. While I would argue that Kohli remains the greater batsman in coloured clothing, Smith’s exploits in the longer-form are mind-boggling. His three centuries, and 499 runs in this series, mean that his batting average now sits at a touch over 61.
The numbers aren’t the only maddening aspect to all of this. If one watches Smith walk in to bat, he doesn’t seem to carry the presence of his predecessors Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting. He is fidgety. He is all over the place. His bat is pointing towards third slip. He doesn’t like sitting still. The bat hovers up and down, unable to rest easy. He has a large trigger movement with his feet shuffling towards the off-side as the bowler winds-up. It shouldn’t work and yet it does. He doesn’t play by the book and yet with sheer bloody-mindedness and exquisite hand-eye co-ordination, he has defied every critic.
Specialist fielder? Not anymore.