Ben Stokes inspires Steven Smith to greater Ashes feats

Striving for more - Steven Smith puts in the hard, and fast, yards in training Getty Images

How did a year out of international cricket change Steven Smith? Most obviously there is the guitar he carts around with him these days, a way of building more to his life away from the game that consumed him to the point that he could not see beyond it at the most critical moment in South Africa last year.

You get the sense, too, that the Smith of early 2018 might not have been so fast to tell Nathan Lyon not to worry too much over the wrenching sequence of the Test's conclusion, in which Australia's No. 1 spin bowler fumbled a certain run out and then was denied an lbw shout that would also have brought victory. Equally, he might not have taken anywhere near as much pleasure in watching Ben Stokes conjure his Headingley miracle, coming as it did at the expense of Australia's chances of a quick kill to this Ashes series.

"A year out from the game - I sent Nathan Lyon a message the other night," Smith said. "He was a bit down after the game, I just said my year out has given me a lot of perspective that that's all it is, it's just a game. And whilst it's important on many levels to win and to play the right way and to do all those kind of things, ultimately it's just a game. I think that helped him a little bit.

"I'm still a cricket nut, no doubt. But yeah, I do have other interests: playing guitar, you probably saw my singing the other day. Copped a bit about that. The wife [Danni] stitched me up there. That's pretty much it. That and cricket, a bit of reading, Netflix, pretty chilled..."

Smith was anything but chilled as he watched the final day of the Leeds Test, having been ruled out of it due to his recovery from a concussion sustained at Lord's. Pat Cummins had revealed how animated Smith had got watching the closing passages of the Lord's Test from his London hotel room, and he joked that it might have been easier to watch Stokes hammer out a one-wicket victory for England from a similar vantage point.

But there was also a level of admiration for Stokes' skill and guts that demonstrated Smith's deep love of the game, something that he was not always able to articulate when holding the office of captaincy. "I wish they'd put me in a dark room. I'm not a great watcher of cricket, never really have been so didn't quite enjoy that," Smith said. "But what an advertisement for Test cricket, it was a pretty amazing innings from Stokesy.

"He completely turned the series on its head, we had an opportunity to wrap it up but he was incredible. Even if you go back to two nights before, when he bowled 14 overs straight. I rocked up to the ground next day and someone said that on average he bowled the quickest for the day as well, over those 14 overs. So that's a pretty amazing effort. He's a tough competitor, wants to be in the pressure moments, thrives under pressure as we've seen the last couple of months. He really turned the game at the end."

Unmistakably there is a sense in Smith that, having been missing from Headingley, he has now been inspired to raise his own game once more in the wake of Stokes. "You could just see the passion that he showed and the fight. He never gave up," Smith said. "You look at him, and I really admire this about him, when he scored a hundred he didn't even celebrate, didn't care. He had one thing on his mind and that was getting England over the line, and you've really go to admire that.

"When you're in those pressure moments you've got to want to be the one to deliver and do what you can for your team. He did that exceptionally well, and hopefully some of our boys can learn from that and when we're faced with similar situations, dig as deep as we can and do whatever we can to get our team over the line."

Telling also is the fact that Smith now sees Stokes' innings less as a spoiler for Australia than as setting-up the makings of a genuinely great Ashes series, of the kind that Smith himself has yet to experience: 2010-11, 2013, 2013-14, 2015 and 2017-18 all being knockouts or thrashings, one way or the other.

"That's really opened the series up," he said. "We had our chance to retain the Ashes but now we're going to have to work even harder and it just makes the series all that more exciting. We don't want to look behind, we want to keep looking forward and focus on what we can control now and that's Manchester.

"We've got a bit of time between now and then with a tour match in Derby, where I think a few guys will have a pretty chilled out week. It's been a long summer for guys that have been here for the World Cup or A-cricket before that, and this series. So everyone's got to do what they need to do to be ready for that next Test match in Manchester."

Doubtless Smith will be yearning to return to the comfortable batting cocoon he occupied at Edgbaston, and then got close to emulating at Lord's before Jofra Archer and the uneven nature of the pitch saw him struck the blow that pushed him out of Leeds. "Edgbaston was just first game back, fresh and I just wanted to bat, I didn't want to stop batting," he said. "So that worked out really well.

"Lord's I felt like probably more the first morning when I was doing all my eccentric stuff I was kind of in a good place then and maybe not as good a place mentally the next day. I think I was 13 overnight. All my movement patterns and the way I feel was really good so I'm comfortable with that and hopefully I can ramp up my training over the next few days and get in a position again where I'm comfortable and can go out and score some big runs again."

Little by little, Smith ramped up his training during the Headingley match, initially 15 minutes of throwdowns, then 25 minutes against Mitchell Marsh and Michael Neser, and he will doubtless face the likes of Mitchell Starc in the Derby nets before the tour game. But one thing that has not changed, even after his year out of cricket, is the way Smith will spend hours searching for a familiar comfortable feel of the bat in his hands and stance, a process that can take minutes, hours, or days.

"It's not a certain amount of balls," Smith said. "Believe it or not, I actually forget how I hold the bat. So I actually try and find that. Sometimes it takes me 10 balls, sometimes I go in straight away and it's fine, sometimes it takes me a couple of hundred balls.

"But when I get that feel, it's a look thing for me - when it looks right behind my foot that's when I know I'm good to go and I usually say it straight away to Hicky [batting coach Graeme Hick], I'll say 'I'm good. I'm on fire here. That's good, we're ready to play'.

"I want to get that back and then try and freshen up for the Test match and be in a frame of mind where I can bat for a long time again."