Most observers would suggest that Michael Clarke is the best player of spin in Australia's Test team. David Warner showed in Dubai that he is right up there if all goes well, but it is Steven Smith who is generally mentioned in the same breath with Clarke in discussions of fleet-footed batsmen who can handle the turning ball. No surprise then that losing Smith for 22 in the first innings in Dubai was a turning point.
Australia were 206 for 3 before Smith fell. He faced 44 balls and looked well set. He seemed barely troubled by Pakistan's spinners; first ball he jumped out of his crease and clipped Zulfiqar Babar through midwicket for three. A similar, but even better shot brought four against Yasir Shah. And then Yasir went for the topspinner. It pitched short and wide but lured Smith into an ill-conceived cut to point.
"Just after I did it, I replayed it for about two hours," Smith said after the team arrived in Abu Dhabi ahead of the second Test. "I don't think I spoke to anyone, I was pretty disappointed. I know what I need to do in these conditions. I think I did it better in the second innings, I played much better cricket and good percentage play.
"[It was] the first ball he bowled that was actually a topspinner and it bounced a little bit more than I anticipated. I said to myself before I came over here that I really didn't want to play too many cut shots against the spin and I was pretty disappointed with the way I got out in the first innings because I was feeling very good and got a start and I think it was a pretty crucial part of the game."
Centurion Warner was at the crease with Smith at the time, but he fell two overs later. Beginning with Smith, Australia's last seven wickets fell for less than a hundred runs, and they never recovered. But Smith did his part in the second innings as the Australians sought in vain to salvage a draw, scoring 55 from 175 deliveries.
His 65-run partnership with Mitchell Johnson occupied more than 28 overs on the final day and gave the Australians some sort of hope, but his departure to a catch in close brought the tail-enders to the crease. From there, it was more or less a matter of time before Pakistan closed out the win.
"I was feeling quite good and I was pretty disappointed when I got out," Smith said. "I thought we were heading in the right direction to get home and I was waiting all day just to fist pump at the end of the day. I'd pictured getting there at the end but it wasn't to be. I can take a lot out of it from the way I played and the way I handled the spinners, it's going to hold me in good stead for the next game."
The next Test starts in Abu Dhabi on Thursday and unless Australia can come back with a victory, they will be the first squad in 20 years to lose a Test series to Pakistan. Smith was part of the group that lost 4-0 in India last year in spinning conditions and he has observed that in the UAE the conditions appeared to be different, with big turning balls the variation rather than the norm.
His approach against spinners is to put them on the back foot early, as he showed by dancing down the pitch first ball in both innings in Dubai. Smith believes that gives him the advantage of eliminating lbw and covering the spin, while also putting him in position to score runs as well.
"A lot of them have the idea of how to play in these conditions," Smith said of his team-mates. "Mitch Marsh almost got it spot on how he played the ball he got out to in the second innings. The only problem his bat was too straight, he needed to face it down to the ground a bit more. He needed to reach out in front. It's a good way to handle the spinners over here, it covers your pad, stops you from getting hit and if it does spin it'll spin past your bat.
"That's the way I play, I've got long arms and a decent reach, so that works well for me. But everyone's different. I think it's about having a game plan and sticking to it and doing it from ball one. I think the start of your innings is the toughest part. If you go out there and expect to see a few balls before you start doing your game plan that's when you're going to get into trouble, you're going to have to do it from ball one."