In the afterglow of his stupendous 144 on the opening day of the Ashes series, Steven Smith has admitted there were times during his 12-month ban for the Newlands ball-tampering scandal where he fell out of love with cricket and considered walking away from the game completely.
Specifically, Smith stated that at the time around his elbow surgery in January this year and subsequent rehab he felt a lack of desire to play for virtually the first and only time in his life. The elbow problem, picked up while playing in the Bangladesh Premier League, was for a time considered problematic for Smith's return from the ban, but he revealed that it brought with it a far deeper struggle.
Fortunately for Australia, given the batting genius Smith demonstrated in a century that took Tim Pane's team from a perilous 122 for 8 to a creditable 284 after batting first on a tricky Edgbaston pitch, the removal of the stabilising brace protecting his elbow coincided with an immediate return of his overpowering love for cricket and, in particular, for batting.
"There were times throughout the last 15 months where I didn't know if I was ever going to play cricket again," Smith said in Birmingham. "I lost a bit of love for it at one point, particularly when I had my elbow operation, and it was really bizarre, it was the day when I got my brace off my elbow I found my love for it again. I don't know what it was, it was like a trigger to go again, I want to play, I want to go out and play for Australia and I guess make people proud and just do what I love doing.
"I've never sort of had those feelings ever before where I didn't have a great love for the game and it was there for a little while. Fortunately that love's come back and I'm really grateful to be in this position now, playing for Australia again and doing what I love."
In raising stands of 88 with Peter Siddle and 74 with last man Nathan Lyon, Smith turned the course of the day, the match and perhaps the entire series, while making a compelling return to Test cricket some 15 months after the disgrace of Cape Town.
"I didn't really know what to do, to be honest, it's been a long time coming, but I'm just, I don't know, I'm sort of lost for words at the moment," Smith said of the moment he reached his century. "Just really proud that I was able to help pull the team out of a little bit of trouble. Obviously England bowled exceptionally well in the first two sessions and it was hard work out there, I'm just proud that I was able to dig in and fight through the difficult periods and get ourselves to a competitive total.
"I think it has got to be one of my best hundreds, definitely, first Ashes Test match, the ball was doing a fair bit out in the morning so I had to work really hard. I got beaten a few times but I just had to let that go and concentrated on the next ball and kept digging in, I know that the first Test for an Ashes series is always big. I didn't want to give my wicket up easily, I wanted to keep fighting and fortunately I was able to dig in today and get ourselves to a reasonable total I think.
"I thought Peter Siddle did a magnificent job, that partnership we were able to form, and Nathan Lyon as well, he was magnificent. He actually said to me that's the most nervous I've ever been out in the middle batting, so to be able to get to my hundred and give him a really big hug and let all my emotions out - that was really special."
There was more or less a constant stream of booing from the crowd across the day, most intense when Smith came to the wicket after David Warner and Cameron Bancroft fell early, and it continued when he reached his century and spent most of his time acknowledging an Australian team balcony that was going, as Smith said, "berserk". He focused on the team and also the not inconsiderable Australian support from the stands, repaying them with an innings that will long be remembered.
"It doesn't bother me, to be perfectly honest, I know I've got the support of the guys in the room and for me that's all that really matters," he said. "They went berserk on the balcony when I got to a hundred and just looking up at them really sent shivers down my spine. It's been a long time coming, getting another Test hundred, and it was a huge moment and I'm lost for words."
While no longer the captain, a role from which he is still banned [until April 2020], Smith said that he had wanted to play the innings of a senior player in difficult circumstances, and was aided enormously by bowlers who have often shared the nets with him over the past couple of weeks committing to extra work to prepare for the challenge of English conditions.
"I obviously don't have the arm band, and that's ok," Smith said. "I think Tim's done a magnificent job the last 18 months or whatever it is, and for me I'm obviously an experienced player now and an experienced person in the dressing room, and you want your experienced players to stand up when it's difficult and show the way, in a way. Fortunately I was able to do that today.
"Sometimes you need your tail to dig in with you. Everyone gets to bat, so you might as well try and improve it, and to their credit, the bottom four and the bowlers that are on the bench have worked incredibly hard the last couple of weeks to try and find a game plan that works in England. Try and get their defence in order and playing the ball really late and all those kinds of things. It's been a big focus, because tail runs can change the course of a game, as we sort of saw today."