Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
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During his year in international cricket wilderness, most of Steven Smith's competitive cricket had been in T20 leagues. There was the CPL, then the BPL, and finally, the IPL. The bare stats will tell you that his returns overall haven't been of the kind to set the world on fire. An average of 30.58 is fine, but his strike rate across 20 matches in these three leagues has been 117.64 - well down from the 125.36 it was 12 months ago.
A little more digging into the numbers suggests an upward trend, though. Smith has played 11 games for Rajasthan Royals in IPL 2019, and batted ten times. But ever since he was appointed captain of the team, his batting has also gone on an upswing. In his first six innings, Smith scored at an average of 37.2, but with a low strike rate of 108. In his last four knocks, the average has gone up to 44.3, and crucially, the strike rate has rocketed to a respectable 130. He's finding the boundary every six balls, compared to the 10.2 he was taking in the first half of the tournament.
He has also gotten off the blocks much quicker. In the first ten balls of his innings, his strike rate and dot-ball percentage in the first six games was 107 and 36.6. In the last four, it has been 139 and 30.5. That strike rate of 139 is the fifth fastest since April 20 - the day he assumed captaincy - among all batsmen, given a minimum of 30 balls faced.
Smith's turnaround has coincided with Royals also enjoying an upsurge, with three wins in their last four matches. They are on 10 points now, with two games in hand, but the match against Royal Challengers Bangalore on Tuesday will be the last one Smith will be part of. After that, he'll be linking up with the Australian team for their World Cup preparations. With both remaining matches being practically must-win games to have a shot at the playoffs, Smith's finale for Royals needs to be a grand one.
"I think I have probably taken a little while to sort of warm into things again," Smith said on Monday in Bengaluru. "The start of the tournament did not go as well as I would have liked, personally or collectively as a group. But I think the more I have padded up, the better I have felt as the tournament has gone on. I've been able to contribute to a couple of wins probably in the last two matches. Felt very good.
"We have won three out of the last four, and it is very important for us to win the last two games to give ourselves a chance to qualify. We can't think about other results, all we can focus on is how we are playing. Hopefully the boys can get over the line tomorrow night and then go and win Delhi as well and give ourselves a chance to qualify."
Part of Smith's easing into form could be down to the natural rustiness of going from constant top-flight cricket to sparse outings at a high enough level. Some of it is also due to the elbow injury Smith has been battling off and on, which restricted his bat-swing and lofted shots in the 'v' early on. His elbow remains 'not 100%', but it's healing well. There was a brief scare in Royals' last game against Sunrisers Hyderabad, when Smith ran back from mid-off to pull off a stunning diving catch that sent back David Warner, but also seemed to hurt the elbow again. But Smith allayed the fears, suggesting there had been no lasting damage.
"All good," he smiled. "Just landed on it (the elbow) quite heavily. More heavily than I had landed on it previously. Obviously from surgery, I have still got some scar tissue and stuff in there and just the impact of the landing affected it a little bit, but there is nothing wrong with it, all good.
"Obviously I was a little bit restricted in throwing at the start of the tournament, and I have gradually built it throughout where I have been able to field at more hot spots - at mid-off more and things like that. I haven't gone out of the circle, but I have still been involved more in the game, which has been nice. I think just the loads from batting and stuff is good for the elbow to keep the rehab ticking along. It's all going really well, I am happy with that. I am throwing at probably 70 or 80%. A couple of weeks, and I should be back to throwing at 100%."
Looking ahead, Smith was confident his IPL stint - the biggest tournament he has been part of in the last year in terms of exposure and quality of opposition - would hold him in good stead for the World Cup, despite the switch in formats.
"I think T20 cricket almost prepares you well for 50-over cricket nowadays, the way the game is played. Fifty overs is almost an extended version of T20," Smith said. "The game has evolved particularly over the past few years. So, yes, I think it may be good preparation personally for me to be able to play and just spend time in the middle in white ball cricket against quality opposition - the best players from India and around the world.
"Preparation-wise I'm really comfortable. I head home and we have three matches against New Zealand and a couple of warm-up matches when we get to England. Plenty of time to prepare and be ready to play."