Booed at arrival, left to a standing ovation: An Ashes series to remember for Steve Smith
A year and a half back, Steve Smith was down in tears, apologising for his sin in the ball-tampering incident that resulted in him being banned from international cricket for a year, along with his partners-in-crime. Smith, who was considered as a modern-era great, with analysts already drawing comparisons between him and Sir Don Bradman, had lost all his stature at the time.
Life had since then been a tough nut to crack for Smith. Amid his struggles in white-ball cricket in franchise leagues, Smith had admitted having lost his love for the game. "There were times throughout the last 15 months where I didn't know if I was ever going to play cricket again," Smith had confessed last month.
But familiar grounds helped Smith regain his old stature. Amid the merciless boos from the English crowd that never let him shrug off his sandpaper incident, Smith scripted one of the greatest redemption story while etching his name in Ashes folklore.
Life rarely gives you a second chance, but when Smith was given the golden opportunity, he returned with numbers that left him only behind the greatest ever. Smith scored a record-scripting 774 runs in seven innings in Ashes 2019 at a Bradmanesque average of 110.57, having made three centuries – including one double-century – and as many half-centuries. Smith walked off the sun-kissed Oval ground to a rousing standing ovation from the English crowd.
Tales of sporting comebacks have been stuff of legends
Only the legends of the game have this trait. His truth about being a serial adulterer, followed by a repeated injuries left Tiger Woods out of the rankings of the world’s top 1,000 golfers. But the former world no.1 scripted the mother of all comebacks to win the Augusta Masters in April this year.
Prior to Woods' inspirational return, Roger Federer was scripted one for himself. He had missed US Open 2016 owing to a knee injury and missed the remainder of the season. He returned the following January seeded 17 at Australian Open 2017, outclassed top opponents in the game, before defeating arch-rival Rafeal Nadal in the summit clash. Six months later, he added his eighth Wimbledon glory to his trophy cabinet.
From Magic Johnson, and Serena Williams, to Kim Clijsters and Mary Kom, tales of sporting comebacks have always been a legend's trait.
And so was the story at Edgbaston last month. Playing his first Test match in 493 days, Smith resumed normalcy with a sensational 144, followed by 142, that helped Australia open the Ashes series with a 1-0 lead while also scripting their first international win at the venue since 2001.
Smith continued with his glorious return, scoring 92 at Lord's, an innings which will be mostly remembered for his fierce duel with Jofra Archer and the fatal blow to his neck. While he had resumed his battle despite the agony, Smith suffered a delayed concussion, which left him out of the final innings of the second Test and subsequently the third Test.
But nothing could stop the man who was on a mission to hand Australian the Ashes in his redemption series. He scored 211 on his return to action and followed it up with scores of 82 and 80 in the subsequent innings leaving the English bowling attack look hapless in front of greatness. Smith ended his incredible Ashes journey in England with an anti-climatic 23 which left his aggregate at 774 in the series.
Smith among all-time greats
Smith's 774 is the fifth most in an Ashes series after Bradman's 974 in 1930, Wally Hammond's 905 in 1928, Mark Taylor's 839 made 30 years back, and Bradman again in 1936-37 with 810. Overall, the number stands 12th in the all-time list and the first 700-plus series aggregate since Windies legend Brian Lara's 798 runs in England in 1994.
Smith 144 and 142 at Edgbaston made him the first batsman since Matthew Hayden to score twin centuries in an Ashes Test match, when the former Australian opener had scored 97 and 103 in 2002 at the Gabba. And his 80 at Oval in the first innings of the final tie helped him script the world record of most fifty-plus scores against a single opponent in Test cricket.
But the one that mattered the most was that Smith took only four innings to topple India's Virat Kohli and take the top spot in ICC Test rankings.
Smith's tally that has come to define him in Test cricket over the years, has helped his average surge to a new level. He presently stands 23 runs shy of Bradman's Test tally, but he stands on the verge of having the highest average among batters who had previously surpassed the greatest ever.
"It was a long 18 months and I have a lot of people to thank," Smith said at the end of the series. "I am sure over the next couple of weeks I will look back and reflect. I am proud of my performances ... and to take the urn back home. That was the goal."
England captain Joe Root admitted it had been Smith's Ashes.
"He's been a pain, really. He's played extremely well, he's the No.1 batter in the world for a reason," Root said. "In difficult conditions, he's stood up and done something very special and been the difference really."