'Bradman-like' Smith is changing Australia - Lehmann
Australia's coach Darren Lehmann has lauded Steven Smith as "Bradman-like," while confirming that the way the tourists pushed India to the brink of losing the Border-Gavaskar Trophy has set a marker for how the team intends to play from here on.
The 2017 Australians were not the team of snarlers who wrested the Ashes back from England in 2013-14, but nor were they the uncertain group who stumbled in Sri Lanka and in the early weeks of the home season last year. With the help of Lehmann and his support staff, Smith's men were well prepared and studious, while for the most part offering the sort of example that Cricket Australia's game growers can be comfortable with.
Lehmann said Smith had been the exemplar of this, from his prolific batting feats to the way he has led the team and conducted himself across the tour. A public apology for letting the emotions of a white-knuckle series get the better of him at times, certainly made for a sharp contrast with his opposite number Virat Kohli.
"He's been brilliant. He's been unbelievable. He's been Bradman-like with the bat but all the stuff behind the scenes has been exceptional," Lehmann said of Smith. "Really pleased for him and what he's brought to the team as a leader. The way they've gone about it has been impressive.
"They're young, they've been up against it, the pitches have been as we would expect. There's a lot of learning in this group over this tour. They're all hurting and disappointed for the result but I'm really pleased with the effort and the attitude at trying to change the way we play here. He's led from the front, the captain. Three hundreds in four Test matches is pretty special."
Looking ahead, Lehmann was adamant that at 27-years-old, Smith was more than capable of surpassing the likes of Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor, not only as a batsman but also as a captain. "Yeah I think so. He's a cricket nuffie; loves the game," Lehmann said. "He's passionate about the game, loves the game, loves his players.
"He helps support staff out. Behind the scenes, he's into it every day, making sure everyone is okay. He's a different leader to Michael [Clarke], to Ricky, to Taylor, to Waugh. And he's working out his own identity as a captain. Everyone is proud of him. So pleased with where he is going. He'll just get better and better."
When Australia slumped to a fifth consecutive Test defeat in Hobart last November, the team performance manager Pat Howard indicated that Lehmann had to "reinvent" himself as a coach. It was a suggestion that Lehmann visibly bristled at, but five months on he agreed that he had changed his own methods in concert with Smith, as the pair forged a new identity for a young team that does not feature the old heads Lehmann first inherited.
"They have been excellent. There have been difficult conditions there is no doubt about it. They haven't whinged once, they've been just getting on with the game," Lehmann said. "They've copped a lot from Indian media and that's just the way it is over here. I've been pleased the way they have handled it.
"We have decided we are going a different way about the way we play. Obviously we're less aggressive than we have been in the past. And I'm pleased with the way they have gone about it. The young group will grow. They will get better.
"We weren't good enough in this series, there is no doubt about that. We missed big opportunities to win the series. But if they keep learning and keep growing and keep getting better, it is a group that can play a long time together. That's the pleasing thing."
Asked to ponder where this team was in relation to the side led by Clarke into the second bracket of back-to-back Ashes series four years ago, Lehmann said Smith's men were building as a team, rather than looking to atone for a series of defeats to England. Australia had lost three Ashes series in a row up to that point.
"I don't think the group is at that stage. That group back then was right at that stage. I mean, they copped a lot for a few years so they wanted to give some back. This group is just playing a game of cricket," Lehmann said. "I have actually changed a bit in my ways as a coach. I've really enjoyed watching the way they go about it. So, for them, they have had to work out the way they want to play as a group and I think it has been brilliant.
"I think the other style was right for that group at the time but this group wants to play a different way and that's okay as well. I think you have got to change as a coach, change as a captain, and players."
"They know they are going to cop different decisions and different pitches and different conditions wherever they play, and they are just trying to get better. My son loves watching the Australian cricket team and I hope everyone's son does."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig