Steve Smith has combined raw talent and perseverance to become one of the world’s most feared batsmen, featured in the latest edition of SA Cricket magazine.
Once upon a time in the south-western suburbs of Sydney, a primary school teacher asked one of her students the question that every primary school teacher asks: what do you want to be when you grow up? The student — a slightly chubby lad with freckled cheeks and bright blue eyes — replied earnestly: ‘My dream is to play cricket for Australia’. The teacher, perhaps taken aback by the boy’s brevity and directness, told him: ‘People don’t make a living out of playing cricket. You need to do something more useful with your life.’
The boy never forgot that teacher’s response. We know this because some two decades later, when the boy had cemented his place in Australia’s Test team — at the grand old age of 25 — he shared the story on teammate Mitchell Johnson’s blog and added a polite, but firm, message to his former teacher: ‘To someone like that I would say they should be encouraging people to follow their dreams and not mocking their aspirations.’
The boy’s name is Steven Peter Devereux Smith. He only turned 27 in June, but it’s fair to say that he’s already probably exceeded his wildest childhood dreams. He owns 15 Test hundreds and a Test batting average of 58.55. In August 2015 he was appointed Australia’s 45th Test captain at the age of 26. In the space of just seven months, he steered Australia back to the top of the world Test rankings. When Australia romped to a record-fifth World Cup last year, he topped the team’s run-scorers’ list and passed 50 in each of his last five innings of the tournament, culminating in a match-winning 105 in the semi-final and an unbeaten 56 in the final.
Although all of this may have come as something of a surprise to Smith’s unnamed primary school teacher, it didn’t come as any surprise to those who know him and the game of cricket. Nowadays, Trent Woodhill is one of the most respected batting coaches in Australia — he is David Warner’s personal coach, an assistant coach at the Melbourne Stars, a batting and fielding coach at Royal Challengers Bangalore and cricketers as young as Adam Zampa and as old as Shane Watson engage his coaching services on a one-on-one basis — but, back in 2004, he’d just been appointed to his first big job in cricket – head coach of Sutherland District Cricket Club in Sydney.
At his first training session, Woodhill saw ‘this little guy, a little bit tubby … running around’. The little fella caught his eye because he was, quite simply, ‘a massive competitor’. All Australian cricketers are competitive, but some are more competitive than others. ‘We had a game of football’, Woodhill recalls, and the kid ‘just ran all these older guys ragged’.
When he got the chance to watch the kid — who he’d been informed was a 15-year-old named Steve Smith — bat and bowl, he found what every knowledgeable observer who’d encounter Smith would find: he’s ‘just different’. Fortunately for Smith, Woodhill is a coach who encourages players to embrace their own natural, peculiar style of play and lives by the motto ‘technique’s secondary to performance’. And Smith’s technique with bat and ball, was, as Woodhill acknowledges, certainly ‘unusual’.
With the bat, Smith’s bottom-hand-dominant grip meant that he had a tendency to flick fourth stump balls through the on-side, rather than drive them through the off-side. With the ball, the young leg-spinner eschewed the classical Australian ethos of giving the ball plenty of air, revs and over-spin in favour of a more sub-continental style of spin bowling, targeting the stumps and relying on his accuracy.
As for Smith’s fielding — it was simply breathtaking, even at the age of 15. But what really stood out about it, Woodhill says, wasn’t his fielding itself, but his mental approach to the task. ‘He didn’t ever see fielding as a chore. He always found it something that he wanted to be good at.’ And the insatiable work ethic he’d become renowned for was already there. ‘What was best about Smith’s fielding was that he wanted to do lots of it.’
Woodhill became Smith’s mentor, continuing the excellent work begun by Smith’s father Peter, an industrial chemist who worked from home and always had time to accede to his cricket-loving son’s requests that he bowl to him in the backyard and the local park as soon as he got home from school. When, mid-way through year 11, Smith decided to drop out of high school to pursue his dream of playing cricket for Australia — a decision which his parents and Woodhill fully supported — his father entrusted Woodhill with the responsibility of going to his school with him to help communicate that decision to his deputy principal.
The decision proved to be a wise one. Over the course of the next five years, Smith rose through the ranks of Australian cricket like a Saturn V rocket ascending into the earth’s stratosphere. He made his first-grade debut for Sutherland at the age of 16, his Sheffield Shield debut for New South Wales at the age of 18, and his Test debut for Australia at the age of 21, having earned each and every promotion through sheer weight of run-scoring at the level immediately below.
But the rocket’s launch may well have been severely delayed if two men hadn’t had the courage to back their own empirically sound judgement. When Smith was 16, his second-grade run output for Sutherland already warranted a promotion to first-grade. However, when Woodhill and Evan Atkins, Sutherland’s then Chairman of Selectors, pleaded Smith’s case for promotion at a selection meeting, they faced pushback. ‘He’s too young, we should wait’, said some selectors. Fortunately for Smith (and Australian cricket), Atkins held firm. Smith vindicated Atkins’ faith by scoring 90 in the second innings of his first-grade debut. Then, in accordance with the Sutherland tradition which decrees that every player must sing a song of his own choice at the end of his debut game, serenaded his teammates with a Marilyn Monroe-style rendition of Happy Birthday.
As he moved up each rung on the long, slippery ladder to the baggy green, Smith continually impressed the people in Australian cricket whose opinions matter the most. In his rookie first-grade summer of 2005-06, Sutherland played a Bankstown side which included a crafty old left-arm Chinaman by the name of David Freedman who, in his prime, had taken 161 first-class wickets for NSW at an average of 31.04. Smith ‘got about 30-odd batting [at] about six or seven’, recalls Freedman, ‘and you could just tell. It was a one-day game. He came back in at the back end … and he just … didn’t waste a ball. He was turning ones into twos and dropping and running. Hitting balls in unusual areas. He just changed the momentum of the game.’
Freedman, playing in his final first-grade season, had already been put in charge of NSW’s U19 programme. Smith quickly made himself one of the linchpins of that programme, because he had the virtues that Australian cricket has forever prized. ‘He’s always looking to move the game forward,’ says Freedman, ‘and that’s one of the key attributes we look for when we’re trying to develop young players – players that are always looking to score, can play off either foot and [possess] really great intent, especially against the slow bowlers.’
In January 2008, Smith made his Shield debut as an all-rounder batting at seven. He walked in with NSW teetering at 225-5, still 164 runs in arrears of Western Australia’s first innings total of 389, and compiled an important 99-run partnership with his captain, the gritty former Test batsman Simon Katich, which set their team up for a crushing nine wicket victory. ‘He looked at ease in that innings and played really well’, Katich tells SA Cricket magazine. ‘He was disappointed to get out because he got a good start.’ His performance left Katich with ‘no doubt’ that he had the potential to one day bat in the top six for Australia.
Smith was such an ‘outstanding’ fielder that Katich put him ‘straight into the slips cordon, which is unheard of for an 18-year-old’. Off the field, the teenager was quiet and laid-back, but on the field, he never hesitated to respectfully share his thoughts on the state of the game with his captain (conveniently stationed right next to him in the slips). ‘It’s come as no surprise to see him do well for Australia as a leader but I can’t say I thought he’d average 58!’ admits Katich with a laugh.
Smith had regularly captained NSW’s youth teams and, in August 2009, was appointed captain of an Australian Institute of Sport squad, coached by Greg Chappell, which toured India. ‘The more I talked to him the more I realised that he had a really good cricket brain and a real passion for the game,’ says Chappell. Like a Jedi Knight, Smith ‘not only knew what was going on now, but he could see where it was going.’ This became apparent to the entire cricket-playing world in October 2014 when Smith pioneered a new method of dismissal in the field. Stationed at first slip as Australia’s left-arm orthodox spinner, Xavier Doherty bowled around the wicket to the left-handed Pakistan batsman, Fawad Alam, in a one-day game in Abu Dhabi. Smith started running around towards leg slip before the ball had even reached Alam and was perfectly positioned at leg slip by the time Alam lap swept the ball straight into his waiting giant paws.
‘He’s just a cricketer mate, pure and simple’, chuckles Freedman. That he is, but, as with many of Australia’s best cricketers, his appearance often belies his performance. His often brutish-looking batting doesn’t have the grace of Mark Waugh’s, but it’s produced a Test average 16.74 runs higher than that of his childhood hero so far. His awkward running style — arms splaying everywhere at 45 degree angles — and perennially chubby physique prompted a now defunct English online commentary service to nickname him ‘Piggy Smith’, yet the Australian team’s data consistently shows that he is one of their fastest and fittest players.
In mid-2011, a 22-year-old Smith was summarily axed from the Australian Test team after a five-match stint as an all-rounder yielded a batting average of 28.77 and a bowling average of 73.33. But, such is Smith’s knowledge of and love for the game, no-one who knows him was particularly worried. It was simply a matter of time before he made the tweaks necessary to prosper at Test level. He started bending his knees more in his batting stance, which pushed his weight onto the balls of his feet, thereby improving his balance at the crease. And he introduced his now famous back-and-across trigger movement — without any prior practice — just after lunch on the first day of the third Ashes Test in 2013, having failed to register a score in the first two Tests. ‘They were bowling quite short at me’, Smith explained to cricket.com.au, ‘and I was trying to get myself in a position to get out of the way, and if it wasn’t too short to play a pull shot’.
Armed with this trigger movement, Smith went on to score a match- and series-winning hundred, and has stuck with it ever since.
Off the field, Smith remains an ordinary Aussie bloke from the suburbs who loves sport, taking the mick out of his mates (and having them return the favour), a little punt on the races, and a yak — ideally over a beer. ‘I don’t think he has changed a bit over the years since I have known him’, says Katich. ‘He’s still the same knockabout kid from the shire that we got to know that season in 2008 when he debuted for NSW.’ And he still has the same ‘real close group of friends’ that he’s had for a long time now, says Woodhill, before summing up his character in one word: Loyal.
Written by SB Tang, a freelance cricket writer based in Australia.