No matter how many “controllables” Cricket Australia have tried to control in the lead-up to a Covid-affected summer, how many biosecurity protocols, meetings with government or compromised with broadcasters, there will always be imponderables of sport that dictate how the season plays out.
To the evident delight of Australia’s cricketers and coaches returned from the IPL and currently quarantining in Sydney ahead of the ODI, T20I and Test series against India, perhaps the most important of them all clicked into place over the weekend: hold the front page, because Steven Smith has figured out how to hold his bat again.
That he has been able to return to the simplicity of long training sessions in between quiet hotel contemplations already looks to have been a blessing. Away from the relative cacophony of the IPL in the UAE, where he was captain of an unsuccessful Rajasthan Royals campaign, Smith has been able to find the clarity of mind and body he needs to hit a million-odd balls and, in his words, “find my hands”.
“I was pretty disappointed actually with my batting throughout the IPL,” Smith said. “I never really got into a good rhythm, but I think the last few days actually I’ve found something. People close to me that know me well, I’ve found my hands the last few days, which I’m extremely excited about.
“It’s taken me probably about three and half or fourth months to do it, but found them now, which is pleasing and I actually look forward to going back to the nets again this afternoon to have another hit and just reinforce it and get started again in a few days’ time. Theoretically it is a simple thing, but it’s just getting that feel and the look of the bat behind my toe the right way and the way my hands come up on the bat.
“It’s hard to explain but it just hasn’t quite been right until probably two days ago, I found a little something and everything just clicked in. I had a big smile on my face after training the other day, because I walked past [Australia’s senior assistant and also Rajasthan head coach] Andrew McDonald I think it was and said ‘I found ’em again’, I was really excited.”
All the way through his career, including Newlands and after, Smith has always retained an almost childlike love of batting and at the same time a sense of mystery to it: Smith knows how good he is but there are times when even he doesn’t know exactly how to find his best, other than to face countless throwdowns and hope that the old rhythm comes back. He is known for a recurring nightmare where he is timed out because he can’t find his bat, and has often spoken about the need to find his hands and all else that flows from that.
The weeks prior to the 2017-18 Ashes series were another such time. “The first Shield game or two I remember I was struggling with it…I remember I found it in the game against Western Australia at Hurstville Oval, something sort of clicked halfway through that innings I reckon, and then I was good to go,” Smith said.
“It’s taken me a lot longer than usual, I don’t know why, whether it was a big [break], I pretty much didn’t bat for about four months during the start of Covid-19, maybe a bit longer, but I’m glad I’ve been able to find something the last few days.”
All of this helped Smith to offer a strong riposte to suggestions that India, Jasprit Bumrah in particular, will be able to harry him into slow scoring if not total ineffectiveness in the same way Neil Wagner did for New Zealand last summer, when Smith scrounged his runs at little more than 34 runs per 100 balls. Noting Wagner’s unique abilities, Smith effectively challenged India to attempt to do likewise, doubting anyone’s capacity to exactly mimic the New Zealand left-armer’s skills.
“Neil Wagner got the better of me, he’s pretty good at what he does, he possesses a set of skills that not many people can do and he does it for a long period of time,” Smith said. “While I had some contributions, my strike rate was down, but Test cricket, that’s the beauty of it, you can bat for as long as you like and form partnerships and I was able to do that. So if others want to take that kind of approach then great. It’s not the same as what Neil does, the way he bowls it.
“In a way it’s a bit of flattery if people believe that’s the only way they can get me out because they’ve exhausted so many more options, it gives me a lot of confidence to know that. There’s not too many quick bowlers who can run in and bowl bouncers all day, and I guess the way Neil does it is particularly special.
“He gets balls between shoulder and rib height, he’s incredibly accurate, and then he’s got an ability to change his pace. I think that was one of the hardest things, not just me but some of the other guys as well coped with last year, was he’d bowl one ball at 135kph, next ball would be 128, the next ball would be 130 and then 135, and it was just tough to get a real rhythm against.”
Either way, Smith appears happily preoccupied with the joys of batting, particularly now that he has remembered how to do it at his best. This much was clear from his response to a question about where he was at in terms of captaincy ambitions, given that many of those around him, including his mentor Maurice Duffy, have stated that his return to leadership would be the completion of a long and redemptive journey since April 2018.
“I don’t really have an answer for that at the present time,” he said. “It’s something I haven’t really thought too much about, it’s just been about backing up Tim and Finchy, I think they’ve both done really good jobs over the last couple of years, and my job in the team is to go out and score runs. So that’s what I do at the moment, and I haven’t given a great deal of thought to it, it’s just about doing my job at the moment and we’ll see what the future holds.”