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Ashley Mallett

A modern-day Benaud?

Steven Smith has the talent to become a Test-standard bowling allrounder, the best of his type since Richie Benaud

Ashley Mallett
Ashley Mallett
Steven Smith was delighted to reach his first Test hundred, England v Australia, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 2nd day, August 22, 2013

Smith's brilliant unbeaten 138 at The Oval was an innings that signified a coming of age  •  Getty Images

Richie Benaud and Steven Smith are a generation or two apart, but both legspinning allrounders share early careers that are uncannily similar.
Smith has the talent, work ethic and belief to become modern cricket's Benaud. And he, like Benaud of yore, obviously believes that success at the very top can only be achieved by the sensible application of mind and body.
When he began with New South Wales, Smith was primarily seen as a developing legbreak bowler with an attacking brand of batting as an extra string to his bow. As time passed, Smith's bowling fell away and it was his batting that blossomed. However, his brilliant displays with the bat against England must have given him renewed confidence in his bowling, for at times Smith's tweakers worried England's most effective batsman, Ian Bell, more than any other Australian bowler apart from the lion-hearted Ryan Harris.
Smith has the talent to become a Test-standard bowling allrounder, the best of his type since Benaud. Due to a combination of factors his bowling has been largely underrated of late. He didn't bowl much in the Sheffield Shield in the Australian summer, and though he snared the wicket of Bell twice in one Test, Michael Clarke didn't use him nearly enough.
Any young cricketer would benefit greatly from learning about Benaud's rise in cricket: his work ethic, persistence and belief were an inspiration to a generation of youngsters. And the story inspires even today.
In the early days Benaud had to juggle his work as a journalist in Sydney with his ambitions as an allrounder. His working life began at the Sydney Sun, where he was initially given the task of handling reporters' expense accounts. Then he was guided into the hectic world of a tabloid daily by a couple of tough old hands at the paper. His experience embraced police rounds, sporting previews and results, and covering parliament - in fact everything that is the lot of a general reporter.
Benaud's journalistic day started early and ended a couple of hours before his cricketing colleagues knocked off, but he never wasted that time. Before every club or state training there would be the lone figure of a young legspinner wheeling away in the nets. His target was a handkerchief that lay on a good length, and all those lonely hours honed his accuracy and proved a huge boost to his self-belief.
Possessed of a high, fluent action, Benaud generated adequate spin, just enough to grab the edge, but his main weapon was the steepling bounce he extracted from all but the deadest of subcontinental pitches. Benaud believed totally in what he was doing and what he wanted to achieve, yet in his first 12 Test matches he scored just 280 runs (at an average of 14) and took a modest 22 wickets at 36, with a highest score of 45 and best bowling figures of 4 for 120. In contrast, Smith's 12 Test matches have produced 765 runs at 34.77, and in his limited bowling opportunities he has taken eight wickets at 48.62 with a bowling best of 3 for 18.
While these figures do not suggest a direct pathway to future greatness, Smith's brilliant unconquered 138 at The Oval was his coming of age in Test cricket. The 24-year-old Benaud's hurricane 78-minute century against West Indies in the fifth Test at Sabina Park in June, 1955 - against an attack that included Garry Sobers - was the turning point for him. In that series Benaud's bowling also began to come on nicely. Against the might of the West Indies batting - which included the three Ws, Collie Smith, Jeff Stollmeyer and Sobers - Benaud took 18 wickets for 485, at an average of 26.94. He also averaged 41 with the bat and even the doubters joined in in calling Benaud a future champion.
Smith is an athletic and versatile fielder who can field anywhere, even in the gully where Benaud excelled, but it is in his bowling that I think his priorities should lie
Benaud was lucky to have rubbed shoulders with team-mates such as Neil Harvey, Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, and Alan Davidson - all truly great players - just as Smith is fortunate to have played alongside Ricky Ponting, Mike Hussey, Clarke and the indefatigable Harris. The greats always inspire those making their way in the team.
Smith showed glimpses of Benaud's flair in lofting Jonathan Trott over his head for six to get to his maiden Test century. Among the others who would have taken such a risk, I can think of Rohan Kanhai, Viv Richards and Adam Gilchrist.
There is an excitement about Smith's cricket that goes way beyond the rapid improvement in his batting. He is an athletic and versatile fielder who can field anywhere, even in the gully, where Benaud excelled, but it is in his bowling that I think his priorities should lie.
There is a slight technical hitch with Smith. His lead arm splays to the left too early and that opens him up at the point of delivery. Australia is crying out for a genuine bowling allrounder. Mitchell Starc shows glimpses of turning into one, so too Ashton Agar, although his bowling is at this moment a long way short of the standard expected at Test level.
The Australian team currently has its fielding coach, Steve Rixon, a former Test wicketkeeper, looking after the spinners. "Stumper" is a good man with a terrific work ethic, but having a wicketkeeper mentor the spinners - in any grade of cricket - is ludicrous. I read Rixon had said that he had kept to a lot of good spinners, and so he must know a lot about the art. Well, I bowled to a lot of excellent wicketkeepers, including Barry Jarman and Rodney Marsh, but I don't think I am in any position to mentor emerging wicketkeepers.
If the Australian team wants an "in-house" spin-bowling mentor then it should be someone who knows a good deal about spin bowling and has bowled consistently well on the Test stage. Shane Warne and/or Stuart MacGill need to be working with the likes of Smith, Queensland's Cameron Boyce and Co.
Benaud gained inspiration from one of the great legspinners, Clarrie Grimmett. A ten-year-old Richie sat with his father Lou on a bench at the SCG in 1940 and watched in awe as Grimmett weaved a web of deceit about the NSW batsmen. He also noted the delivery Grimmett called his mystery ball, the one Bruce Dooland would years later show Benaud. It was, of course, the "flipper", which Warne went on to make famous. Richie must also have gained inspiration from Lou himself, who once took all 20 wickets in a senior cricket match in NSW.
Every Australian boy who grows up inevitably playing backyard "Tests" dreams of wearing the coveted baggy green cap one day. As a kid I, along with thousands of other Australian kids, had that dream. My mum and dad didn't leave me anything in material goods, but they did give me something far more valuable: an unfettered belief in myself.
Smith must have strong self-belief. While his batting is nearing the top shelf, he needs to work assiduously in the nets on his bowling. He would do well to work closely with Warney and MacGilla and seek the counsel of Benaud. Those who know their cricket envisage that Smith, with hard work and belief, will become the splendid Test bowling allrounder we all know is capable of turning into. Quite apart from the runs he scores, we all hope to be singing his praises when he starts bowling Australia to Test victories.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell