Steve Smith: An innings that will stand test of time

ustralia's Steve Smith acknowledges the crowd as he leaves the field after being bowled by England's Stuart Broad for 144 on the opening day of the first Ashes cricket Test match between England and Australia at Edgbaston in Birmingham. (AFP)

He drove the half-volley through the covers and as soon as the ball touched the rope, he let out an emphatic roar. The sounds of applause were laced with stings of boos as he basked in the glory. Steve Smith brought up his Test hundred number 24. It was one of his grittiest knocks, and probably, the most significant one till now. 

In 2018, Australian cricket was rocked by a ball-tampering scandal. TV cameras showed Cameron Bancroft trying to rough up one side of the ball with sandpaper, a tactic that was later revealed to be a collaborative brainchild of the then captain Smith and his deputy David Warner. Smith and Warner were suspended for twelve months, while Bancroft was suspended for nine months. They were barred from taking part in international and domestic cricket matches. They were sent into an abyss of darkness, left to find a way for redemption and to recover the lost respect. 

Smith lost his captaincy, and his reputation as the best Test batsman in the world suffered a rude jolt. His greatness was tainted by the scandal and apprehensive whispers cropped up that maybe he would lose his mojo. In his own words, "There were times throughout the last 15 months where I didn’t know if I was going to play cricket again. I lost a bit of love for the game. I have never had those feelings before but fortunately, that love has come back." 

So did the batsman, who has enchanted the world with his unorthodox batting style and mind-boggling ability to accumulate runs. Smith's comeback series is not an ordinary mundane one, that will go into the least read pages of the history. Arch-rivals England stand in the way, and the Ashes urn is at stake. To make matters worse, the English crowd will leave no stone unturned to taunt the vilified batsman as Smith walked into their den. 

At the end of the first round, he has come out of the ring as the undisputed winner. He dragged his team from collapse to take them to a competitive total. 

Australia was tottering at 122/8 and England had them on the mat thanks to Chris Woakes' and Stuart Broad's impeccable bowling. When Peter Siddle joined Smith in the middle, Australia was staring at the scoreboard with utmost horror. Amidst the chaos, Smith stood unperturbed. He was unbeaten on 42. 

Thereon, he and Siddle forged a partnership of 88 runs, with the latter proving to be handy with a gritty 44. When Siddle got out, Australia was at 210/9, Smith was unbeaten on 85. Australia was still adrift of a par score, with Smith 15 runs short of scripting a majestic tale of a comeback. England sensed a chance to close the gate. 

But Smith had other ideas. He guided the last batsman Nathan Lyon. Or rather, he shielded Lyon. England tried every weapon in their armoury, but Smith's fortress was impregnable. He targeted the likes of Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali and clattered them for boundaries. Australia rose with hope as an exquisite artwork began to unfold in the middle. To quote Ravi Shastri from the ICC 2011 World Cup final, "He is in the zone. The crowd can sense they are seeing something special." 

Australia 229/9, Steve Smith unbeaten on 99, Ben Stokes about to begin the 73rd over of the innings. 

In the second ball of the over, Smith tapped a length ball into the offside. The single was on, but he refused. He did not want to expose Lyon for the next four balls. He decided to risk his century. 

On the fourth ball of the over, Smith immortalised the glory. His juggernaut stopped at 144, with Australia at 284. He scored more than 50 percent of the team's runs. 

Before the match, former Australian cricketer Mark Taylor said: "Smithy needs that big score to tick the last box", in an interview with Espncricinfo. Indeed, Smith needed that one big innings to announce his return, to reassert his supremacy, to reassure that he lost his kingdom, not the penchant for battles, the hunger for runs.

The innings of 144 bears the hallmark of his extraordinary talent, a batsman playing at the highest level after being out of the league for a whole year. And that too in English conditions, where the ball glides and hisses like a snake, always deviating for the normal trajectory and looking to deceive the batsman. Yes, Anderson was out of the innings early with an injury, but even the likes of Stuart Broad, Woakes, Stokes made the talk in familiar conditions. The blade of Smith rebuffed all the threats as the bowling friendly pitch cowed in front of his genius. 

His appearance exuberates the innocence of youth, but as he showed at Edgbaston, under that amiable face lies a nerve of steely determination. The applauds of the cricket fraternity were unrestrained, unabashed as fate smiled at the conqueror.

Because even fate loves to see a winner forged in fire. 

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