Though Steven Smith first captained Australia in 2014, it is easy to forget he had been a permanent fixture in the team for barely a year up to that point. Smith's formative years have been captured in a new book, The Journey, on the eve of a home Ashes series that will play a large part in defining how much he really has learned about batting and leadership over his career so far. He spoke to ESPNcricinfo about his early days, his batting, his captaincy, the Ashes and the future of the game.
One of the things we learn from your new book is that you were still learning to drive when you first captained Australia. This book really captures your years learning about the game, about leadership and life, doesn't it?
It did take me a little while to go from my Ps [provisional licence] to my full licence, a little bit lazy probably on my behalf to not go and get it done, but I'm on my full licence now, which is great. But yeah, learning on the job and trying to figure out ways to be successful was all a part of it and part of the book.
Tennis was a big influence on you, both technically and mentally - learning to adapt a game style to different opponents and circumstances?
Yeah, it was a way to keep my hand-eye co-ordination up in the off-season. I loved playing tennis and I still love tennis. I watch it quite a lot. Roger Federer is my favourite, which is pretty well documented, but I always loved playing growing up. It was a way to be competitive. I was quite a small kid and I didn't have quite the power some of the other people I played against had, so it was about finding different ways, whether it was taking the pace off or changing different angles up and trying to run them around the court a bit more, things like that. So it certainly helped me to think and solve problems on the go and I think I bring that to my cricket.
What sort of a cricketer do you think Roger Federer would have been if he'd grown up with that instead of tennis?
I kind of liken him a bit to Mark Waugh, who was my favourite cricketer growing up. He just made everything look so easy and effortless. I see similarities in the way that those two go about their business in the respective sports. I think he'd be very stylish and just make it look easy.
Another influence you talk about as a young player is the idea of concentrating on your strengths and building them up, rather than focusing too much on your weaknesses or trying to be more orthodox. You talked about that a lot with Trent Woodhill?
People always used to say to me: "You need to hit the ball straight back down the ground if the ball's on middle and off stump, that's where it should go." I think changing people's hands is very difficult to do. Everyone's got their own authentic swing, and, for me, that's always been going across myself. I've always been very strong going towards the leg side, so Trent always said to me that if I get a ball on off stump, "What are you doing trying to hit it there [straight], why don't you just hit it to the leg side?" and I was like, "Yeah, good point". So I started doing that and it worked pretty well for me.
"There's been a directive from the board last year to try to get younger guys into the Australian team. That's got to filter down, I think, into state cricket a bit"
When you arrived on the domestic scene, Australian cricket was looking for a legspinner after Shane Warne, and as the young, pudgy blond, you looked the part. What was it like dealing with that expectation when you yourself knew you wanted to be a batsman in the end?
It was a tough period in my career. A lot of people were telling me, "You need to keep bowling", and I was batting No. 8, I think, for a while in Shield cricket because they wanted me just to bowl and try and get picked for Australia that way, which was tough because all I ever wanted to do was bat.
I was really fortunate to get an opportunity to play as a spinner to begin with when we were trying to find the next spinner. Thankfully Nathan Lyon's taken that role on himself recently, but it was a difficult moment because I just wanted to bat. I've always loved batting, but at that point my way into the team was probably through the ball, so I worked hard at times on my spin bowling. I probably could have worked a lot harder on it, but I was thankful for the opportunity to play for Australia. Receiving my cap off Ricky Ponting at Lord's is certainly something I'll never forget.
Did it take strength of character to be able to block out all these people saying "we need a legspinner" and really think of what you wanted to do?
I probably listened to it a lot for the couple of years where I was bowling a lot more than I am now. I've always read everything that's written about me, so I was probably buying into it a little bit. But the real turning point was when I got dropped from the Australian team after playing as an allrounder and I was able to just focus on my batting. I thought that was the way I was going to have a long career for Australia and fortunately things have turned out pretty well at the moment.
Two things that seemed to happen after you were dropped the first time around were that you concentrated on your batting but you also got yourself a lot fitter. Did that mean you were better prepared physically and mentally when you came back in 2013?
I'd say when I first started playing for Australia, I was probably a little bit chubby, so I took my strength and conditioning training a lot more seriously and really enjoyed going to the gym. Still do, really like those sessions now. I find them a bit of a soothing experience after tough days.
After your recall you make pretty swift progress, you start making hundreds for Australia and become a really important figure in the team, but then everything stops because of Phillip Hughes. Do think the game's been forever changed by his death - things like the game being called off at North Sydney Oval recently?
I've no doubt the game has changed. That was a terrible moment for everyone involved in the game and in cricket. He was a good mate of a lot of ours and you certainly see now when someone gets hit in the head there's genuine concern rather than "let's give him another one" - that sort of thing had always gone on in the past.
Are you conscious of that when you're thinking of an Ashes series and using pace and intimidation with three fast bowlers as a weapon? Is it a bit of a conflict sometimes to balance those things?
I still think that we have to play the game. Some people have some weaknesses to short bowling and you've got to use it. If they get hit, you have concern for them, but it's still part of the game. I think it will always remain a part of the game. Straight afterwards, guys were a little bit hesitant to bowl a short ball, but as time's gone on, guys have got back into it and started to play the game again.
You get back on the field for the Adelaide Test match against India. It's a very emotional game and a dramatic win. Then you're talking to Brad Haddin and Mark Taylor at a bar in Adelaide and you find yourself becoming Australian captain virtually in that conversation. That week was such a whirlwind.
It sure was. It was a tough week. We played a really great Test match at Adelaide, won that game at the end of the fifth day, which was great. That night, celebrating our win, a lot of the Nine commentators were there having a drink with us, including Mark Taylor.
I was talking to Mark and Hadds at the same time and he went to Hadds and said, "Are you ready to captain next game?" He said, "No, I think you should give it to Steve". Taylor goes, "You're kidding right?" and Hadds says, "No, I think he should do it". It was fortunate that I'd done some captaincy stuff with New South Wales and the Sydney Sixers, and did it pretty successfully and scored runs while doing it as well, so I was confident about that. Tubby said, "I've got to go make a few calls to a few board members" to see if he could clear it. Fortunately they agreed and it was all history from there.
Was it nice that the conversation was with those two guys, given the influence they have had on you?
It wasn't until after that I had many conversations with Tubby and tried to soak up all of his wisdom. He was Australian captain previously and someone who'd been in my shoes. You can relate to people like that. Every now and again I speak with Tubby and try to learn anything off him that I can. Hadds is someone I've grown up with and respected for a very long time. He's a good friend of mine now, someone I can talk honestly with and he can give me feedback about anything to do with leadership and captaincy and things like that. Two guys who are very good to talk to about all those kinds of things.
"The real turning point was when I got dropped from the Australian team after playing as an allrounder and I was able to just focus on my batting"
One of the things you've been in the news about lately is for "captain's calls", like dropping Ed Cowan from the Sheffield Shield side to have a look at Daniel Hughes. You've also written about moving David Warner down the order at the World T20 in 2016. You're not an official selector, but how does that responsibility sit with you?
It's part of my job and certainly I take accountability for all that and have to deal with things if they go well or if they don't. I probably regret David Warner batting at four. We picked a few openers, we had a lot of guys who opened the batting in T20 cricket, and if I had my time again, I'd have David up the top, but hindsight's a wonderful thing, of course.
In regard to Ed Cowan, this has been a tough selection. Ed was the leading run-scorer last year in Shield cricket and played particularly well. But as we've always known at NSW when the Test players come back, someone has to make way and, unfortunately, in this instance it's Ed Cowan.
There's been a directive from the board last year to try to get younger guys into the Australian team, guys like Matt Renshaw and Pete Handscomb, who came in and did really well. That's got to filter down, I think, into state cricket a bit. I know Ed doesn't agree with it, but Hughesy's been in terrific form. He played beautifully in the JLT Cup, getting a couple hundreds there, got 200 [in club cricket] on the weekend, so we're picking a guy in good form and a guy who I think is a genuine Test prospect in the future. I've only seen little bits of him, but watching him face our quicks in the nets, it looks like he's got a lot of time, which is a very valuable asset as a batsman, and I'd love to see him come out and score some big runs for NSW.
Another test of your captaincy and for a lot of players was the Sri Lanka tour last year, after the Australia team had gone to No. 1 in the rankings. You said that out of that tour you needed to adapt how you played spin bowling. We've also seen Nathan Lyon adapting his bowling for Asia. You talk about adapting a lot, but that was a case of actually doing so?
It was. Sometimes you can learn a lot more from a loss than you could from a win, if that makes sense. That was a challenging tour. Those wickets were tough to play on for guys going overseas. The difference between balls spinning and skidding was something that I probably hadn't quite experienced either as one of the more experienced batters in the line-up who'd played in those conditions. We weren't up to the challenge in Sri Lanka. I think guys learned from that and when we went to India, we adapted a lot better and were able to compete for a lot longer. Although we couldn't win in India, I think we made some really good strides.
Can you contrast what you saw of Nathan in Sri Lanka with what you saw of him this year and your captain-bowler relationship over that time?
I've always been a big Nathan Lyon fan. I think he's a tremendous bowler. His record speaks for itself. It was just about being willing to change different little things and have some subtle variations so that everything wasn't the same all the time. I think when everything's the same in those conditions and you're not getting much natural variation then it becomes a lot easier to play. I think something Nathan adapted really well from Sri Lanka to India is when guys were trying to sweep him. He'd throw in a quicker ball and make them think twice about playing that shot and get them back to defending.
When they're defending, I think he looks very dangerous, as well as bowling some cross-seam deliveries that don't drift and go a bit straighter - something he wasn't doing very well in Sri Lanka, but I thought he did extremely well in India and since then in Bangladesh as well. He's learned a lot. He's got a lot more confident in his ability, he's continuing to grow and learn, and his record now as an offspinner in Australia is quite phenomenal.
That India series was a real epic, and a bit of an underdog bout. There were a few incidents that fall under the banner of dealing with pressure, like the Bangalore incident with you and Pete Handscomb looking towards the dressing room on a DRS referral. Was that a case where the pressure of the moment just overcame you?
Yeah, I'd say so. It was such a big Test match. If we won that game then we retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, would have been 2-0 up, so it was just like, "I don't want to be out". Pete probably didn't help me much either coming down, and when you're in a moment of desperation and someone says, "Why don't you look up there?" your first instinct is just to look where he tells you. It was a mistake on my behalf and I apologised straight away. We got accused of doing it a lot, which is absolute rubbish. It was a brain fade on my behalf and an error. Hopefully I don't have one of those moments again!
The way Virat Kohli played that, you've written that you really don't have an idea of what was behind that and can only conclude it was a bit of gamesmanship. He's never really raised it with you after that, has he?
No, I'm not entirely sure what he was going on about there, because that was certainly the only moment that ever happened. So, as I said, a load of rubbish.
"When I first started playing for Australia, I was probably a little bit chubby, so I took my strength and conditioning training a lot more seriously and really enjoyed going to the gym. Still do"
The other thing that happened in terms of verbal exchanges was the release of stump microphone audio. Something you've pointed out is that stump audio when the ball is dead is against ICC regulations. How much did that annoy you?
It annoyed me that they had to sieve back through the archives and find those moments, particularly painting a bad light on our team when both teams were guilty of doing the same things. That was disappointing. I think the broadcasters are told over and over again that they need to turn the stump mics down but they keep putting a lot of pressure on and keeping the stump mics on, which is unfortunate.
Something else you've reflected on is that you felt at the end of the series you were batting at a quicker pace than earlier in the series, and that was partly mental fatigue. You didn't feel you could bat out there for as long?
I think I was in such good form and seeing the ball really well. I'd done a lot of batting in that series and even leading up to the last Test match, I hit an unusually low amount of balls before the game, because I just wanted to get in the middle and give everything I had left. I was very mentally fatigued, and it was just about seeing the ball and hitting the ball in the last Test match, and not thinking too much. I think at one point I hadn't made 10 [yet] and I hit Umesh Yadav over cover for four, something I wouldn't normally do in a Test match. It was a little bit bizarre. I was still fortunate enough to get a hundred. I wish I had a bit more in me to get a big score. I think that really would have helped the team, but I was so mentally drained that I just didn't have anything left.
That fourth Test in India is the most recent hundred you've made for Australia. Do you think it's a challenge for you going ahead as captain to have the mental reserves to be able to bat out there for long periods? You've already done it a lot as a batsman but just over time with the different demands of captaincy?
I've never got to that point before. I just think that India, four Test matches, there was a lot that went on throughout the series, and just those little things drained me. And that last Test match was a tough one. But let's hope it doesn't get to that point again. I'm feeling really fresh right now and hoping to make some big impacts this summer.
Going into the Ashes and taking on the England leadership combination of Joe Root and Trevor Bayliss, who you know well, do you expect this England side are going to be quite aggressive in their approach this time, rather than in 2013-14, when they were more a team waiting for things to happen?
I don't think they had much choice in 2013, to be honest. I don't think we gave them an opportunity to get into the game at all. From the first Test match we set the tone and were ruthless the whole way through. First Test match is going to be really important. We need to set the tone again and hopefully get them on a similar path to what we did in 2013. A few players were out here for that tour, and hopefully we can get them thinking the same way, open a few of those scars up as such, get them thinking "oh not this again" and that kind of thought process. I know Trevor very well and he'll ensure they are very attacking. We just need to stick to our guns and ensure we prepare really well and make sure we're doing the basic stuff really well out in the middle.
The Gabba as a venue, you didn't get to start the summer there last year. How much of a confidence advantage is it for an Australian team to go out and play there? Do you get a lift just from the memories?
It's been a fortress for Australia for a long period of time and it's nice to know we've done well there, but at the same time it's a new game, you have to turn up and be willing to do the same things. The first Ashes Test is always huge, so it's going to be an exciting time for everyone.
Another venue you'll be going to for a major Test match for the last time is the WACA Ground. What's unique about playing there?
It's a great place to play cricket, I've always enjoyed it. I've got some pretty fond memories there, my first hundred in Australia at the WACA. It's a ground that as a batsman if you get in, it's one of the best places to bat in the world. The bounce is consistent, the outfield's like a carpet where the ball just runs away if you hit it through, and it's a fantastic place to play cricket. I think back to 2013-14 as one of the most amazing moments in my career when Mitchell Johnson bowled that ball to Jimmy Anderson and George Bailey took the catch at bat-pad and we'd won the Ashes. That was certainly a highlight of my career and a moment I won't forget.
One contrast between the England and Australian sides is batting depth. Without going into selection or who's going to be in those positions, do you think if you're going to be successful in this series you're going to need to get more out of that 6-7 middle order position? It's been a problem area for a while.
We've had a lot of collapses in the last couple of years. I think in our last 15 games we've had 14 collapses or something like that. We can't afford to do that this summer and six and seven are a place where we'll need some rebuilding if those sorts of things happen. It's going to be a valuable spot if guys there are getting runs for us. It'll make a big difference, so let's hope that is the case.
At the end of the book, you mention a lot of long-term goals. Winning a Test series in Asia, winning a World Cup, winning the Ashes in England. Given that the ICC made it formal the other day, can we add winning a Test Championship final to that?
Yeah definitely. It's a great concept, it just gives every game you play so much more relevance, which is great for cricket. There won't be any Mickey Mouse series as such, everything's important.
You say quite pointedly that you don't want to be part of the generation to let Test cricket "go down the plughole". What does that mean in practical terms? What can you and other players do to make sure it survives?
I guess whatever the game demands. We now see day-night Test cricket that's come in and been a big success. The grounds have been packed, the TV ratings have been exceptional and it's a fabulous concept. Whatever the next demand is, whether it's four-day Tests or whatever, we have to just get on with it and ensure that we're doing everything we can to keep Test cricket alive. Right now, I think five-day Tests are still going really well, but you never know what the future holds. We just have to be willing to adapt and do whatever we need to do.