Smith's growth underlined by 100th game
No format of the game illustrates the startling evolution of Steven Smith from bits-and-pieces player to dominant batsman quite like how ODIs have done. In his first 38 matches, between 2010 and 2014, Smith cobbled a measly 477 runs at 20.73 without a single half-century, and was picked as much for his bowling and fielding as his batting.
But as if flicking a switch, from the moment he walked out to bat at No. 3 in Sharjah against Pakistan in October 2014, Smith was transformed into just about the complete batsman in limited overs, his wide and audacious array of strokes allied to intelligent decision-making and a determination to make big runs. So big, in fact, that in his last 61 appearances, Smith has tallied 2711 runs at 54.22, with eight hundreds - including the innings he rates his finest, a century against India in the 2015 World Cup semi-final.
"I'd probably say my most memorable innings is the century I scored against India at the SCG in the semi-finals," Smith said in Kolkata, reflecting on his looming 100th ODI. "Pretty big game and it was good to get a big score there. I think we lost a wicket pretty early. I was able to form a partnership with [Aaron] Finch. That's probably one of better one-day hundreds on a big occasion.
"I think I've evolved a lot as a white-ball player. When I first started playing one-day cricket, my first 30-odd games, I played more as a bowler. I had to change a bit there. I've been batting at No. 3 for a while now. I had to find the right tempo for the game, whether it's hitting boundaries or finding the right time to hit a right boundary. You learn as you play. It's pretty exciting to play my 100th game tomorrow."
Among other innings of note over that period have included an ice-cool half-century to guide Australia past a fired-up Wahab Riaz in the quarter-finals of the same World Cup at the Adelaide Oval, and a terrific century to lift the hosts to an unlikely win over South Africa at the MCG after they slipped to 5 for 98 when chasing 268 in November 2014.
"Absolutely, I'm still learning. I think you're always learning," Smith said of his batting. "You're trying to evolve and just keep trying to get better. You can never be satisfied. You want to be the best you can. Yes, I've learnt a lot along the way, but there's always so much more to learn and get better at as well."
Collectively, Australia must get better against India after failing to last the distance with the ball, nor managing to establish a bridgehead with the bat, in Chennai on Sunday. Smith's predecessor Michael Clarke has raised some questions about his leadership, though this did not particularly ruffle Smith.
"I don't think I'm in a bad place with my captaincy," he said. "Obviously, results haven't been the way we would have liked and that's something we are trying to rectify. Guys are working hard, and it's all about getting out in the middle and getting the job done. It was a disappointing start to the series the other day; we've got another game tomorrow to turn things around."
Plenty of rain around Eden Gardens means that Smith must keep his options open, both in terms of team selection and the composition of his batting order. "Certainly something to think about," he said. "To begin, we'll turn up tomorrow, expecting to be playing full 50 overs, and if things change from there, we've got to adapt and do what needs to be done. We weren't good enough batting in the 21 overs that we had last game, certainly we've got to do a lot better.
"I don't think [training indoors] will have a big impact. Guys have worked hard since we've been here in India. We've obviously had a game not that long ago, so the guys are in a fine space. It's just been about just topping up a few things we can indoors and getting a few things right there. No excuses from us. We're ready to go tomorrow."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig