England v Australia, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 2nd day August 22, 2013

Smith shows a ton of learning

Steven Smith has shown more development than any other young Australia batsmen this year and after missing out at Old Trafford now has a hundred to show for it
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It was fitting that Steven Smith brought up his maiden Test century with cricket's equivalent of a home run, for at times he looks more a baseballer than a cricketer. He gets batters out with full tosses, takes one-handed catches and, when the bowler runs in, stands with his bat bobbing up and down ready for a big wind-up. When he clubbed Jonathan Trott over long-on to move from 94 to 100, he rode the shot and punched the air like he'd hit a World Series-winning grand slam.

There is much about Smith that seems made for the short formats. Like others of his age, he emerged in the Big Bash before first-class cricket. He has played nearly twice as many Twenty20 matches as four-day games. Smith is a more compulsive twitcher than Bill Oddie. Between deliveries he taps his helmet, left pad, box, right pad, thigh pad, helmet again, glove, right pad again. It is tempting to think he is a man with no attention span, a pyjama cricketer.

That would be unfair. Batsmen cannot stay alert non-stop for long periods, they must switch off between deliveries, reset their brains. Habits and rituals help maintain that focus; Trott walks halfway to square leg, Alastair Cook marks his guard and twirls his bat, Smith fidgets. More important is his stability and balance at the crease and apart from his nodding bat, he is much stiller than he once was.

It was notable that when Chris Rogers wrote last year of the flawed techniques of many of Australia's young batsmen, including Phillip Hughes, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh and Callum Ferguson, he singled out Smith as a man who seemed "to be sorting things out". Notably, his six over Trott's head to reach a hundred was not a slog, it was a through-the-line drive, smart and relatively safe against a part-timer.

It is no wonder Smith was pumped at achieving the milestone, for he might have felt his chance had slipped after a horrible cross-batted swipe ended his innings on 89 at Old Trafford. When the coach Darren Lehmann spoke of batsmen needing to play straight after the collapse at Chester-le-Street and of careers being on the line at The Oval, without naming names, it was clear that Smith was one of the men under pressure.

In many ways he was lucky to be here. In many ways he has had a lucky year full-stop. Smith was part of Australia's 17-man squad for the tour of India in February-March but seemed the least likely to play; instead, he got his chances after the homework suspensions and showed his class against spin with 92 in Mohali and 46 in Delhi. Still, it wasn't enough to earn him a Cricket Australia contract for the 2013-14 season, or a place in the original Ashes squad.

But Smith was added to the touring party ahead of the first Test, when the captain Michael Clarke was battling his ongoing back injury, and having scored 133 for Australia A against Ireland, he pressed his case further with runs in the tour match in Worcestershire. Suddenly, he had jumped from outside the squad in front of Khawaja and the banished David Warner and found himself in the side for the first Test.

Still, in the lead-up to this match he had shown glimpses without grabbing his chances, and was averaging 25 for the series. But the selectors gave him another opportunity - one that was not afforded Khawaja, Hughes or Ed Cowan - and he nearly threw it away first ball with an ill-considered slash outside off that was lucky not to have been edged behind. It was the shot of a man feeling the pressure, but gradually Smith calmed his nerves and found his rhythm, leaving and playing on merit.

He showed some fight, and that was what Lehmann wanted after the Durham debacle. Smith survived for 567 minutes - nearly enough time for three full Twenty20 matches - before Clarke declared with him on 138. At 24, he was Australia's youngest Ashes centurion since Ricky Ponting. He has also become Australia's second-highest Test run scorer this year, with 499 at 41.58. Only Clarke has made more, or faced more deliveries, or passed fifty more times.

In the latter part of his innings, as the declaration approached, he brought out a few baseball shots. There was even the occasional overhead smash - not surprisingly, Smith was a talented junior tennis player. But importantly, for most of Smith's innings he played not tennis nor baseball but cricket. Test cricket. The No.5 position is now his. He has earned it.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • latecut_04 on August 23, 2013, 10:10 GMT

    We shouldnt get carried away with this batting performance.England had the habit of winning dead Ashes tests throughout 90s(remember all those 3-1 or even 4-1 scorelines.)Did anyof those batsmen/bowlers go on to become 'next' gen England.A generation of England team struggled.Agreed Aus is not that bad(just look at their home record or even this series they have fought well )But batsmen have failed to deliver when needed.All these lads had their chance of a lifetime during last match 2nd innings.I am not being cynical or doing Aus bashing.Just asking for the right perspective especially regarding the likes of Watto..

  • Sathyasing on August 23, 2013, 9:16 GMT

    Matured innings played by a flamboyant player.Probably if groomed well ,we could see another michael Bevan.

  • dummy4fb on August 23, 2013, 9:09 GMT

    Happy for Smith. I was so impressed with his 92 at Mohali and was equally shocked when he was not included in the original Ashes squad. Good century. This guy shows the willingness to learn and work hard, 2 important qualities in a youngster. Yeah, he has nailed the no. 5 spot atleast for the return series unless ofcourse Mr Lehmann messes it up even more

  • Bonehead_maz on August 23, 2013, 7:58 GMT

    @ Posted by xtrafalgarx on (August 23, 2013, 4:12 GMT) can't believe McDonald's that good a bowler - all his perceptions Rogers was repeating ?

  • ravi_hari on August 23, 2013, 7:56 GMT

    First of all Big Ciongrats to Smith. A job very well done. He has been the most consistant batsman on this tour. Though he was not the first choice No.5. The more you look at him the more you feel you are looking at a young Steve Waugh. In his early days Steve Waugh also had a lot of technical deficiencies and was more a bowler allrounder than a batsman. He over came all deficincies and became the backbone of the Aus team and eventually led them from the front as captain. If Smith continues to perform and works on his technique he can become another Steve Waugh. Batting at No. 5, he is ideally positined to become one. Captaincy or not, he seems to be the future of the team At 24, he has all the time in the world to develop his game and serve the team for a long period. I would like to see the same kind of approach by Shaun Marsh. I feel Warner, Marsh, Smith and Wade are the future of Aus. If they work on their technique and attitude, they can see the Aus team marching back to the top.

  • DylanBrah on August 23, 2013, 6:56 GMT

    Come on guys, stop with the Steve Smith future captain talk. While I am relieved he's scored his maiden century, I'd like to see him do it consistently and push his average up to 40-45 before we talk about him being Clarke's successor.

  • ab_cricket on August 23, 2013, 5:51 GMT

    Smith Should become the next Australian Captain. He has those instincts and mental strength to become a good captain. I would go one step further and say he'll become a better captain than Clarke. He should definitely be Australia's Captain in the World Cup '15

  • satzzz on August 23, 2013, 4:47 GMT

    This year will always be special as the so called talented players(like SIR Jadeja, Steve Smith, Bell, Rohit Sharma, Ravi Bopara, Sammy, all pak bowlers) are finally showing their potentials. These men were behind so many criticisms(rather jokes) for just being tagged 'talented' but not delivering. They are showing the world what 'talent' really means.

    Mind you guys, even the man who made the format his own has scored his 1st century only in his 79th match. I am not comparing these folks with the greatest batsman of all time. But during his initial stage even Sachin was trusted with the talent he possessed rather than the stats to back him up unlike now.

    Hope these young brigades continue their form and create a brand for themselves in test cricket.

  • Shaggy076 on August 23, 2013, 4:45 GMT

    I know there is long way to go yet but I liken Steve Smith to how Steve Waugh started out his career. An over confident stroke player with a different technique, having been dropped from the side he has learned like Steve Waugh what shots he can and cant play and make the bowlers bowl him to him. Steve Waugh to the end never had a great technique but had a determined mind eclipsing his lack of technique, hopefully Smith can follow this path and if he is 75-80% player of Steve Waugh I'd be very happy.

  • PrasPunter on August 23, 2013, 4:40 GMT

    I wont take the argument of his scoring this ton only on a flat track. Mind you, he weathered out tough bowling conditions early on day 2 when the ball was darting all around. I think we have found a No 5 at-last. Good on you Smithy !!!