"Steven Smith fidget" - 375,000 Google search results. "Steven Smith skittish" - 160,000 Google search results. Not the most important statistics to consider when assessing candidacy for the Australian Test captaincy, but interesting nonetheless.
By definition, neither of those words screams confidence and stability. Perhaps you think Derek Randall, but probably not Mike Brearley. Yet we were reminded often in the past week that Australia's 45th Test captain - the man taking on the leadership job often referred to as the second most important his country has - was so confident of his path in life that he ignored a not-inconsiderable societal taboo and left school early, essentially narrowing his options to one.
When Steven Smith's mates lolled about on gap years and slept through university lectures, Smith was entering the less-forgiving world of professional cricket. He did at least play like a boy. He still does, in some respects: the joyful spirit of his batting, the terrier fielding, the mixed bag of novelty spin almost exclusively comprising wicket balls and boundary balls.
His story is not unprecedented, but how wonderfully instructive of the cricketer's capacity for growth and reinvention that Smith, originally held up as a spin wunderkind in the post-Warne era, should morph into something closer to Australia's other golden-era pillar, Ricky Ponting.
Perhaps that's blasphemy and slight exaggeration, but to even consider the merit of the theory shows how far Smith has come from the hyperactive scamp who nicked everything in the corridor outside off stump. Now he's probably the closest thing to a batting certainty that Australia have; the strangest-looking middle-order rock in cricket.
Many wise judges felt that Australia would find it far harder to replace Michael Hussey than they would the late-career version of Ponting. Once Michael Clarke finally goes for good as well, Smith might in some senses be performing all three of their roles. It's an ageing Australian line-up now and one imminently due personnel changes. Clarke's ride was often rocky and so too Smith might want to look into a precautionary suspension check.
Going in his favour is the way he's batting. It's easy to write off and even lament the influence of short-form cricket on Test techniques, but arguably the best three Test batsmen right at this second - AB de Villiers, David Warner and Smith - do not owe much in their techniques to conventional cricket. It would be hard to argue that Smith possesses the momentum-changing explosiveness of the other two, but in his lofted straight drive - the current benchmark of the art - and in his now-distinctive cross-bat swat past the bowler he possesses two murderous, authoritative strokes. Strokes that make you flinch. Just ask Ian Gould.
They're also shots you can't set a field to and partly explain why Smith is now a man who can't be kept quiet in any scenario; not on the subcontinent, not under the pressure of Ashes cricket, not in the game's shorter forms and not even against the might of South Africa's pacemen. Alone they're significant weapons, but now they're also welded to a solid base of more muted, strike-turning options. Smith's destruction is gradual; a trusty sledgehammer rather than a wrecking ball or dynamite. Three sessions on and you wonder how the hell he has demolished the entire house.
Smith also looks like making runs every time he bats now, a handy trait for a captain and also something that could, at least on a short-term basis, free him of self-doubt in his leadership role. With the bat he rarely gets bogged down and there's an ironic by-product of that ceaseless, labyrinthine combination of tics and tugs; if Smith is ever frazzled as he bats it's virtually impossible from his body language to tell.
So Smith the batsman seems pretty well on track, but what about the leader? Tactically, he has proven himself astute in the prior experience he has had. An interesting element of his rise, though, is that what some see as a strength - that he has quickly been named captain at virtually every level he has played - can also be seen as a weakness. At his grade cricket club Sutherland he got the nod at 19. He was 22 when he first performed the duty for Sydney Sixers, and 24 for New South Wales.
Doubtless he'll have learned a thing or two from Clarke and Brad Haddin, but in being thrust into all of those jobs so early he hasn't benefited from anything close to the rich and sustained period of mentorship his predecessors had.
Perhaps this won't be a problem and Smith knows his own mind well enough now, but there'll probably be rough patches too. His form won't always hold, for one. If he needs advice in that area he need look no further than his potential Ashes rival Alastair Cook, who at birth was probably named captain of all the babies in the maternity ward. The possibility remains that only one or neither of them will be in charge next winter.
You'd sense, though, that Smith's not going anywhere. Even if the admirable Clarke makes it back, it will be for one final tilt at the urn. In that case Smith will be standing at the other end, ruffling his trousers, yanking his pads, lifting his helmet lid and scratching endlessly at the pitch - all the while encrypting the stillness and focus that lay below the surface.
Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sport in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian Australia and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko
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I recalled this underrated and rather ignored 3 year old article when a I read Mark Nicholas's article last week...
What Mark Nicholas had to say...
http://www.espncricinfo.com/story/_/id/ ... st-2017-18
http://www.espncricinfo.com/story/_/id/ ... st-2017-18
The chronological line of Australian batting excellence since Don Bradman reads: Arthur Morris, Neil Harvey, Greg Chappell, Ricky Ponting, and now Smith. It has to include Smith. Record and effect tell us everything. He is no Chappell G, no aesthete, but his play is exquisite in many other ways; ways that drive opposing bowlers to distraction. He fidgets and flaps like no other - a four- piece stanza before each ball faced that concludes with a high wave of the bat and two exaggerated flexes of the knees, before the creep across the crease that takes him to Smith nirvana: a transcendent state of peace and happiness around off stump from where the oracle is worked and the miracles are made.
Where the bloody hell do you bowl to this fellow? Outside off stump perhaps, but not if the Smithmeister is in leaving mode, for he is okay awhile with the status quo. Dead straight is fine, unless his eye is in and the ball has refused to move from its original line - wow, then it gets a leg-side whoopin'. Short is a reasonable plan if well directed (throat), unless it's telegraphed and then he just giggles to himself and watches it float by. Full is very good, unless it's a tad too full and he pumps it down the ground. Root had plenty of plans, some to capture his opposite number's wicket and others to limit his scoring, but Smith's will outlasted Root's wit. Frankly, once the Australian captain was set, it never looked like anything else. He played and missed only twice, or arguably a third time too, though the withdrawal of his bat is a piece of theatre in itself and not always to be trusted for the truth. Look at it the innings any which way but think clearly about the destruction it caused. This was an epic. One for the ages, a piece of art for the Ashes' sake. Never mind the idiosyncracies, reflect on the message: we shall not surrender.
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