Learning on the job
Eight years ago, Steven Smith sat in the principal's office of Menai High School in Sutherland Shire, a pensive look passing across his chubby face. The source of the tension was not of the kind usually associated with high-school students finding themselves in this position. Smith had been a good and popular student, but at 17 he envisioned a future well away from the Higher School Certificate. Accompanied by his junior coach, Trent Woodhill, Smith wanted to state his intention to leave early.
It was not a decision everyone approved of, including the Cricket New South Wales welfare officer present at the meeting. He made a sturdy case for not rushing Smith, allowing him to complete his schooling, and putting full-time cricket on hold to make sure he had something else to fall back on. After listening for a time, Woodhill interrupted. "No disrespect to the school," he declared, "but Steve's going to make $1 million a year for a good ten years of his life. He's that good a cricketer.
"Steve nodded his head and said thanks, the principal said, 'I couldn't agree more, he's a good student but his mind is with his cricket, so I reckon he should give it a go, he can always chase his schooling later if need be'," Woodhill recalls. "The welfare officer was absolutely gobsmacked and we walked out of there. We still laugh about it."
For a few of the years since then, the cricket world has laughed at Smith rather than with him, as he found himself thrust into the front rank of Australian cricketers a few summers before his time. But an education on cricket grounds rather than in classrooms seems now to be bearing fruit. His progress has not always been smooth, pockmarked by the advice of as many as 15 batting and bowling coaches, but it has now stabilised into a strong upward curve. With each match, each innings, Smith appears to be benefiting from lessons on the job.
"It did help having a lot of exposure to international cricket at such a young age. That showed me what I need to do to be successful at that level," Smith said. "I probably didn't have what it took at that time to be successful, and being able to have that taste of it and then go back to state cricket and Australia A and try to find a way to get through those situations and tighten up my technique, it's definitely been a benefit."
The self-reliance evident in these words has always been there, but for some time after Smith's emergence he had to contend with the fact that his own methods were not thought correct enough to be sure of success. In the years between his departure from Menai and his first brush with Test matches in 2010-11, Smith found his batting and bowling techniques picked apart. As his junior coach, Woodhill had stressed to Smith the importance of working things out for himself. This simple maxim became more difficult to follow with each new coach Smith encountered.
"I can remember certain members of the NSW youth programme saying, 'This kid won't progress, he's too flashy, his technique's not right.' Steve's had to battle a lot harder than people from the outside would probably realise," Woodhill said. "He's unorthodox, and Australians hate unorthodox cricketers. If he was an Indian cricketer right now, he'd be untouched, he'd be smoother, he'd be fluent, but in Australian cricket, from a young age people want to talk technique.
"As much as he's only 24 now and from the outside he got picked early for Australia and made his way through NSW, he's had to fight for his technique along the way. We want to clone batsmen in Australia. Everyone wanted to bat like Greg Chappell in the 1970s and the 1980s, then everyone wanted to bat like Steve Waugh in the 1990s, then we had the power phase with Matthew Hayden, we've had people wanting to bat like Michael Clarke and Shane Watson.
"It's very hard in Australia if you've got an unorthodox technique, to find someone who can help you bring it on. They want to go to the manual, they want to get it to match up. A lot of things the Indian and Pakistani players don't do - all they have is the game and they learn the technique from playing. That's where we let a lot of players down, by over-coaching them."
For a time, Smith was also a victim of mistaken identity. When he first emerged as a contender for an Australian Test berth across the summer of 2009-10, it was not his batting that attracted the most attention. Four centuries were apparently of less note than his hard-spun legbreaks and blond hair. A seven-wicket cloudburst against South Australia at the SCG excited a national selection panel grasping with increasing desperation for another Shane Warne. In England, Smith debuted as the No. 1 spinner, but the most notable contribution of his first two Tests were not the legbreaks but an uproarious 77 in a losing cause against Pakistan at Headingley.
Though Smith's dancing feet to spinners were unveiled as he tucked into Danish Kaneria, he toured India later that year as the spin bowling back-up to Nathan Hauritz. He only made it onto the field as a substitute fielder in Mohali, when a severely underdone Doug Bollinger suffered the side strain that probably cost Australia the match. Even so, it was Smith who went closest to conjuring victory when a stiff VVS Laxman and nervy Pragyan Ojha had crept to within a few runs of their eventual one-wicket win.
Six runs were still required when Mitchell Johnson and the Australian slips cordon went up vehemently for an lbw appeal against Ojha. While Billy Bowden shook his head, Smith picked up the ball on the off side and threw for the non-striker's end, where Laxman's runner was well out of his ground. Had the ball hit, Smith would have been a match-winning wunderkind. Instead, it missed by centimetres, and the four overthrows took India to the cusp of victory.
Australia's next sight of Smith was in mid-Ashes series, when he and Phillip Hughes were dropped into a team that was 1-0 down and considerably further behind in terms of energy and purpose. Speaking at a joint press conference with Hughes, a wide-eyed Smith said part of his commission was "to come into the side and be fun". The guffaws of the English press in attendance would be replicated by the touring players on the field over the next three Tests, as Smith found his technique examined with forensic precision by James Anderson, Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan.
"I probably wasn't quite ready for it at that time," Smith said of 2010-11, when his only half-century of the series arrived as the last rites were administered at an SCG deserted of anyone not swearing loyalty to the Barmy Army. "I'd come off some good cricket and scored some big runs on the trot in a couple of games for NSW, but looking back, I don't think I was technically correct enough to be successful at this level."
Smith went to the subcontinent for the 2011 World Cup but could not hold down a regular place. He made inadvertent headlines when vying with Ponting for a skied catch against Canada, their gentle collision and the captain's angry reaction beamed around the world. The moment said much about Ponting's dissatisfaction with a team that seemed to be losing direction, but the lesson about not drifting in the field has not been lost on Smith, now that his own captaincy credentials are being spoken of by many, including Ponting.
"I watch the game pretty closely and think of a few things that I'd do perhaps differently to what's going on and throw up ideas here and there as well," Smith said. "That's how you learn and if you eventually get that opportunity to captain any team, you've already done all the work on the field to know what you need to be doing, so it keeps you alert on the field as well. I think people can start drifting. You're out there for a long time and I think it keeps you focused on the game and ready for every ball."
Leadership was to be the area in which Smith next impressed. Named captain of the Sydney Sixers in the first edition of the Big Bash League, he guided the magenta-clad team adroitly, helped along by the wise words of the Test wicketkeeper and vice-captain Brad Haddin. Either side of the Sixers' tournament victory, Smith showed evidence his batting had begun to mature, a greater tightness in defence allied to the earlier flair. When they faced Smith, Victoria's Chris Rogers and Andrew McDonald were two among many older players to sense that a precocious game was starting to grow.
At length, a new selection panel began to agree. Opportunities were limited - an ODI here, a T20 there - but Smith's place in the future again began to appear more assured. Those who had not seen him bat since the SCG Ashes Test in 2011 were gratified by the sight of a still head and a straighter defensive blade during his fleeting appearances for the national team. A call-up for India following the retirements of Ponting and Michael Hussey followed, and Smith's runs in the final two Tests amid the chaos of "Homeworkgate" suggested a major leap had been made.
The national selector John Inverarity's intentions for Smith would appear a little muddled in subsequent months, as he was first omitted from the Ashes squad but named vice-captain of the Australia A tour that preceded the Tests. A staunch hundred against Ireland on a difficult pitch in Belfast stood out, and Smith was then included at the behest of Clarke and the coach Mickey Arthur. By the time Smith joined the rest of the squad, Arthur was gone, and Darren Lehmann installed to mentor the team.
This upheaval did not detract from Smith's progress, and runs accrued in a variety of situations and conditions, at Trent Bridge, Old Trafford and The Oval. Team-mates enjoyed Smith's lack of ego and eagerness to learn; few have trouble picturing him as a captain in years to come. His early forays in the role with NSW in the domestic limited-overs competition were notable for their energy and insight, his collusion with offspinner Nathan Lyon particularly promising as the Blues reached the tournament final.
As for his batting, the poking and prodding of 2010-11 has been replaced by something far more stable and aware. Smith's importance to Australia's top six for the return series was underlined by the selectors' decision not to send him to India on ODI duty, despite his obvious affinity for the conditions. Instead they preferred that he spent time grooving his game on Australian pitches, the better to counter England's pacemen on swifter pitches. A sequence of intelligent domestic innings was capped by a century against Victoria at the MCG. Anderson and company await.
"It does help your confidence to know that you can do it against one of the best bowling attacks in the world," Smith said of England. "I've taken a lot out of that tour. It was tough with the result, but I've certainly gained a lot of confidence out of it. I think I understand a bit more now how bowlers are trying to get me out, and where my scoring options are, and just playing the percentages a lot more.
"A lot of that's been able to come from tightening up my technique. I got rid of one bat tap I used to have as I was about to face up, and getting rid of that's made me more stable and able to get in better positions and play, particularly fast bowling, a lot easier. I feel like I'm good to go now."
For Woodhill, Smith's tale is vindication of the idea that cricketers should be given room to evolve for themselves. Just as he outgrew Menai High School, Smith has prospered without too many scholarly batting voices in his ear.
"Steve's got an unorthodox and very Indian technique, the way he holds the bat, his movements, and thankfully over the last two years he's taken greater ownership of his own game," he said. "He's followed the lead of Michael Clarke, who has great ownership of his own batting technique and game, and he's catching up on some lost years where others had tried to change his grip, his stance, his backswing. He's now fluent as he's been for a long time and that's only going to get better."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here