London: Steve Smith has been on a dream run. Since he scored his maiden Test hundred at The Oval back in 2013, he has tonned up 10 more times including four in four Tests versus India at home, and the personal best of 215 at Lord's last month.
He has been the captain of the Australian side in Michael Clarke's absence and now seems primed to be the captain across all formats with Clarke retiring at the end of the Ashes.
Aus' Steven Smith celebrates his century yesterday. Pic/AFP
For someone who began his career in Baggy Green for his ability to bowl a bit of leg spin and the ability to tell jokes to keep the mood in the dressing room light, it has been a remarkable turnaround to become the leader of Australia's batting and rise to No. 1 in the ICC Test batsmen rankings. His unorthodox batting technique combined with nervous tics and restless adjustments of gloves and pads never really gave one the confidence that he would make such a rapid rise to become an accomplished batsman and yet he has.
It was on the back of that incredible run and the crescendo of confidence that Smith announced – nay, taunted – the English that they won't even get close if Australia played to their best in these Ashes. With the help of hindsight, we can now tell that Smith was oh so wrong.
In fact, Australia's fortunes in this series has mirrored that of Smith's. After a below par game at Cardiff with Smith only notching couple of thirties, a flat track at Lord's welcomed him and Australia. Smith swiftly cashed in on the opportunity and Australia rumbled back to the bullying form that made Smith make the pre-series pontification. But since then, on two traditionally English wickets at Edgbaston and Nottingham that provided seam movement, he couldn't even break double digits. And sure enough, Australia which depends a lot on Smith for his runs, ran dry and were routed, and the Ashes were lost.
In the midst of his golden run, during which he has averaged more than 67 with the bat, Smith looked like the reincarnation of Don Bradman himself. Such was the tear he was on, that among the batsmen to have made 1,000 runs, only Bradman's average of 113 was higher than Smith's 90, in the first innings of a Test.
On a wicket that looked a bit more challenging than the one at Lord's, Smith finally found his game. But It took a long time coming. There was not the usual fluency or the free swing of the bat that is associated with Smith. It was an innings he had to grind out for the most part. It was as if he, and his Aussie cohorts, had to revert to their batting origins and relearn the art of Test batting: letting the balls go early and often and playing with soft hands with the ball right under the nose.
Only after he had passed his fifty did the audacious drives and flat-footed pulls make their presence in his armoury known, but even then, they were sparingly used. When he tucked a harmless delivery from Moeen Ali to mid-on and scampered through for his 11th century, there was more relief than celebration at reaching the milestone. He had become, after Matthew Elliott in 1997, the first Australian batsman to score 500 runs in an Ashes series.
As Australia looked to push on towards 500, Smith switched on to one-day mode and some of the shots that used to reel of his bat in the last 18 months, made their appearance often. He finally perished trying to force a ball through the offside off the bowling of Steve Finn, inside edging to be bowled.
Sometimes, a struggling batsman tries to hit his way out of bad form. And sometimes, they try to grind their way out. Smith chose the latter and has set the game up for a consolatory win. But the fruits of his hardwork will hold him in good stead as he takes the mantle of full-time captain and the engine room for Australia's batting.