Steven Smith: From the ‘next Warne’ to world’s No 1 batsman
As Steven Smith fizzed down wristy leg-spinners to a team of over-50s in the quaint surroundings of Kent’s local cricket league in southeast England, onlookers were in no doubt that this reserved 17-year-old would go on to represent Australia.
It was 2007 and a newspaper back in his home city of Sydney had already labeled Smith as the “next Shane Warne.”
“He was being touted as a leg-spin bowler who could bat a bit,” recalled Gavan Burden, chairman of the management committee at Sevenoaks Vine Cricket Club that was offered Smith’s services for a season.
“Everyone’s expectations then were that he’d follow in Shane Warne’s footsteps as a wrist-spin leggy, who could bat usefully at No. 8. So it’s been a bit of a transformation.”
Eight years on, Smith is much more than that. He is back in England as the world’s new No. 1-ranked test batsman and the player likely to score most runs in the five-test Ashes series between Australia and England that starts on Wednesday.
In his last six tests, Smith has scored five centuries, more than 1,000 runs and averages 131.5. In his first warm-up match ahead of the first Ashes test, against Kent last week, he scored 111 before retiring — it was the only way he was going to get “out.”
Not bad for someone still criticized for his unorthodox batting technique. Only two years ago, in the Ashes in England that Australia lost 3-0, Smith was still being regarded by some as something of a soft touch.
How he is proving the critics wrong.
“For me, it is just about going out there and playing the type of game I have been over the past 12-18 months and continuing to score some runs,” Smith says ahead of the Ashes.
“I think I know my game a lot better now than I did. I was fresh back in the side then, I have certainly got a lot more confidence in my game now.”
Smith is an unassuming character, just like he was during his time at Sevenoaks Vine just outside London. There he played for free and his first match was for its over-40 side against Kent’s over-50s in front of about 50 people.
“He was a really nice young man,” Burden told The Associated Press. “He had his 18th birthday with us — he wasn’t your typical Aussie, having 18 pints of lager and a curry on a Friday night. He was quite shy, quite reserved.
“All he was interested in was living, breathing, eating, watching, reading and playing cricket.”
Burden describes Smith’s technique back then as “slightly unorthodox ... not straight out of the MCC coaching manual.” Steve Rhodes, the director of cricket at Worcestershire, has similar sentiments about Smith from the batsman’s time at the English county in 2010, when he was a Twenty20 specialist and still more of a legspinner than a batter.
“Jacquesy (Australia batsman Phil Jacques) was one of his early mentors and he used to call him ‘The Freak,’” Rhodes told the AP. “He used to do freaky things, special things.
“We knew he’d a talent for the big time but I suppose he just needed to mature as a person to make sure he could do it consistently at international level, which is how it’s ended up.”
Trent Woodhill, coach at Sutherland Cricket Club in south Sydney where Smith emerged, agrees. He told the cricinfo.com website that Smith has only made minor adjustments to his oft-criticized technique — a straighter bat on the downswing, more bend in his knees, playing the ball later — and that he has simply become more confident and trusting in his own game.
“Each player has his own unique way,” Woodhill said.
Former England spinner Graeme Swann has said Smith will struggle during the Ashes if the ball swings, that he has a “weird technique” and “he doesn’t strike fear in you like the Aussies used to.” And current England fast bowler Stuart Broad said his team will look to get at Smith quickly now he has moved up the order to No. 3 and “test his technique.”
“He’s not had amazing success in England,” Broad said. “I’ve got a few ideas.”
Smith, though, has looked at home at No. 3 — he scored 199 against West Indies in Kingston in his last test — and will not be fazed.
“Hopefully I can just continue to let my bat do the talking,” Smith said. “You can expect that, trying to get into guys’ heads. It has certainly happened before and will do again.”