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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
August 22, 2013
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 hereFeeds: Brydon Coverdale
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Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala