Smith burst onto the international scene in 2010, but it was not until 2015 — when he became the captain for Australia across formats — that he came into his own as a batsman, especially in the longer format of the game. He played under two fierce captains in Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke. But you hardly found their reflection in his game.
In 2010, he joined a new era of cricketers to carry forward the legacy started very recently by Steve Waugh. For more than a decade, he had seen Waughs, Pontings, Gilchrists, and Clarkes playing cricket the hard way and it reflected in the way they operated on the field as well.
If you ever read an excerpt from Ruskin Bond's new book to Waugh or Ponting, that "You can't have a game without losers, they are just as important as winners. And no matter how good you are, there will always be someone better than you", chances are that they would tear apart the pages of that book and throw it away. Australia always played to win, no matter what, the target was always to grab the cup.
While the Australian team suffered a bit for a little period due to lack of able replacements as Ponting and Co departed post the 2011 World Cup, this ideology was never sacrificed. Australia continued to play their brand of cricket, however much it was criticised.
Until one afternoon in Cape Town changed everything.
Three Australian cricketers, including Smith, were banned from playing the game. Smith and Co made headlines all over the world, for all the wrong reasons. The Australians had cheated and accepted it. A tiny sandpaper had scratched the 142-year-old history of Australian cricket.
Smith wept in the press conference on reaching Australia with his father standing behind and consoling him. This was not a picture you associated with a captain of an Australian team when you saw the likes of Ponting and Waugh in late 90s and first decade of 2000s operate.
What followed was a year without cricket. Also, a year with a lot of thoughts, both disturbing and relieving. Not many know what Smith went through and did in those 300 days or so without playing the sport he loves. He would have seen from outside the ropes, his team being thrashed all over the world, by rivals England, then by India at home.
After the warm-up game against England, Smith mentioned about doing social work and engaging with himself in the time he was out of cricket which helped him become a better person. It is pretty evident that if there was anything related to cricket which would have occupied his mind during this period, it was the World Cup. The one-year ban was going to get over just before cricket's biggest tournament. Would he be ready for it? Will they pick him again?
The talks around him were cruel. Not many believed that when he returns, he would be the same player he was before the ban.
Former Australian captain Ian Chappell, soon after the ban was imposed, was of the same opinion that Smith won't be the same player when he returns. He had told this writer a year back, "I doubt it (Smith returning to his old self) very much. This (ban) is going to dent his confidence a lot. It's a hard thing to overcome. I think he will come back as an Australian player. I don't think he will come back as a captain. But I also think that he won't be the player that he was before."
Much more than the incident itself, Smith must have had a tough time rubbing off the images of him breaking down. Those visuals must have stayed with him for a long time. It is easy to live in the past, especially the darker portions of it.
Maybe those images are still with him.
Maybe those images were still revolving around his mind as he came out to bat with Australia 83/2 against England in Southampton. A knock here would not really make a difference, maybe to the world around him. But it would make a world of difference to the batsman inside him.
The universe had planned his return to batting in an Australian jersey — even in a practice match. This was England and the crowd would boo whenever his name was announced or when he was beaten or when he took a run or when he stood silent trying to recollect himself.
'Cheat, cheat, cheat', chanted the English fans as Smith entered the ground. The fact that Smith had heard this on numerous occasions and that he had heard this even deep inside his heart so many times in the past one year, the booing and heckling was not going to affect him too much. He has accepted the 'tag'. He has served the ban. He knows he is going to live with it for the rest of his life but he also knows that no one can stop him for getting out there and batting.
Even after these years, the most difficult job as a batsman was still to get to the 22-yards and bat and bat and bat and bat to take his team to a winning total. A lot might have changed inside and around Smith in the last one year but what did not change was how cricket was played. How he batted. He still knew how to bat and he knew how to score. He knew that whatever happened in Cape Town was not going to govern how the ball would behave off the pitch. Booing or not, if there was room to cut the ball, he would cut.
This match was being broadcast but who knows how many eyeballs it garnered? It was not of much importance, after all. But Smith, in the middle, taking his guard, had begun a new chapter for himself. Spectators or no spectators, he knew a good knock would make the headlines the next day and a cheap dismissal might just evoke a sentence in an obscure match report. Smith batted for the headlines no more than he batted for himself.
When Stokes pitched it short with Smith on 99 and the former Australia captain attempted the pull, it did not come off well. It looked a bit ugly as well. Like so many decisions that don't come off well, on the pitch and off it. Like the one in Cape Town. But Smith did not pause and think about the shot. Not all decisions are great and you always look back and learn. Not all the shots would come off the middle of the bat as well. But it does not mean that you would not run. Cricket does not allow that comfort.
Smith moved on and completed the single to reach the hundred. The century was followed by yet another round of boos by the crowd. But Smith had had enough of it. He celebrated the ton. However, he did not thump his chest as he did during the last Ashes. He did not punch the air either.
He merely took off the helmet and raised his bat. Raised it again and that was it. He raised his bat but his head was bowed. The boos continued. His body language signified his past one year, his bat spoke of his future.
International cricket had welcomed the former Australian captain back. Smith returned on 116 off 102 balls. If Australia goes on to win the Cup, nothing else will matter.
That knock was another example of how cricket and life go hand-in-hand. You commit a mistake, you go back, learn, unlearn, relearn and return. Life welcomes you. So does cricket. Australia begin their campaign on 1 June. Smith has already begun his.
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