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An average 21-year-old would find it hard to deal with the hype. But there is nothing average about Steven Smith
July 9, 2010
News : Afridi wants Pakistan to replicate T20 form in Tests
News : Clarke predicts tough Tests against Pakistan seamers
News : Smith will bring 'buzz' to Test side - Nielsen
Players/Officials: Steven Smith
Series/Tournaments: Australia tour of England and Ireland
Steven Smith. The name could hardly be less remarkable. It's so common that someone with the same name has already worn the baggy green. However, this Steven Smith, who is preparing for a Test debut against Pakistan at Lord's on Tuesday, is anything but ordinary.
Steve Waugh has called him one of the most promising cricketers Australia has seen for 20 years. Ricky Ponting reckons everything he touches turns to gold. His state captain Simon Katich was blown away with the improvement in Smith's bowling last summer.
They're big statements, and the average 21-year-old would find it hard to deal with the hype. Not this young man, because the most striking feature of Smith's game is his complete confidence, whether he's taking one-handed catches on the boundary, innovating against fast bowlers or tossing up juicy legbreaks.
"I'm not really the nervous type," he says, when asked if the pressure of a Test debut at Lord's will get to him. There is no arrogance in his words; he is quietly spoken, and presents the answer as a simple statement of fact. The evidence is there for all to see.
When he made his ODI debut at the MCG in February his legspin went for 78 runs as the field stayed up and the West Indies batsmen went over the top. Ponting wanted to push men back but Smith, then 20, asked his captain, a veteran of 300-plus ODIs, to keep them in the circle; he wanted to create wicket opportunities.
In his fifth ODI, he was batting in the 50th over with his vice-captain Michael Clarke on 99 at the other end, and the opening bowler Tim Bresnan was running in to bowl. Smith tried a reverse slog. It didn't come off, but the fact he even attempted the shot says much about his self-assurance. Under Bob Simpson, such impudence from a new player would have been almost a hanging offence. The current coach, Tim Nielsen, encourages Smith to be himself, and says he brings a buzz to the group.
Nathan Hauritz's foot injury means that on Tuesday, Smith will become the eighth spinner Australia have used in Tests since his idol Shane Warne retired. He will be only the second Australian spinner to debut at Lord's, after Hugh Trumble in 1890, and the first Australian to begin his Test career there since Len Pascoe, Richie Robinson and Craig Serjeant all started together in 1977.
"It's one of the better places to make your debut ," Smith, who played an ODI at Lord's last week, says. "It's something that I will always remember. It's a pretty amazing place to play cricket. I couldn't believe how big the slope is on the field when I first got there. It's just an amazing place and if I get the chance to play out there it will be a dream come true, really."
He has already lived a dream of sorts by having one-on-one coaching with Warne, who was the reason Smith switched from seam-up to lespin at the age of 14. Warne gave Smith some advice when he was called in as cover for the Boxing Day Test last summer, and the pair have met for some extra sessions since then.
Warne has helped with some of the mechanics of bowling legspin - Smith has slowed his run-up and keeps his shoulder higher - but also the mental side of the game. A legspinner must be able to outfox his opponent and Warne was the undisputed master of the psychological battle.
Smith doesn't have the variations that Warne possessed, but remember, he is only 21. He has the legbreak, the top-spinner, the wrong'un, the backspinner and his own take on the flipper, a ball that pops out of the front of the hand. Stepping up from limited-overs cricket to the Test arena might require a change in bowling strategy, but Smith doesn't want to stray too far from his formula.
"I don't really like to change too much," he says. "Obviously in one-day cricket you've got to try and not go for too many runs. I like to bowl different balls, like a backspinner quite a bit, to get the batsman off strike. In Test matches it's probably just my legspinner that will come out a lot more, and just about building into your spell and trying to sort the batsman out, sort out what he's doing and just being patient.
"Being a spinner, you always want to be taking wickets. The best way in any form of the game to slow the rate down is to be taking wickets and if you give yourself every opportunity to do that then everything is going to hopefully work in your favour. It's about being confident and being yourself and do what comes to you naturally. That's just the way I bowl, I guess. If I start bowling flat not much happens so I've got to keep giving the ball air."
But for all the talk of Smith being a legspinner, and that will be his primary role against Pakistan, he has a better first-class record as a batsman. Already Smith has four first-class centuries, in only 13 matches, and the brisk rate at which he scores makes him extra valuable in the lower order.
He will probably bat at No. 8 in the Tests, behind Tim Paine and ahead of Mitchell Johnson, but certainly has the potential to be a top-six player. While Warne was the man the young Smith looked to for bowling inspiration it's no surprise to find out his batting idol is a man who, like Smith, was always on the attack.
"I always liked watching Michael Slater," Smith says. "He went pretty hard at the ball and with the big West Indian quicks bowling at 150kph he was just slashing at them. It's the same way I play."
Smith was a talented junior tennis player and there remains the hint of a forehand smash in some of his cricket strokes. The reverse-sweep might even make an appearance in his first Test innings. "If there's an opportunity, maybe, I wouldn't write it off," he says. "I think I am batting quite low if I am going to play. You never know what's going to happen."
That last sentence sums up Smith as a cricketer. We'll soon see what Smith can bring to Test cricket, but you can bet it won't be boring.
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