Cover Story

All About Steve

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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The world’s best batsman and the captain of Rising Pune Supergiant opens up

NO OTHER STEREOTYPE in cricket is more carefully sculpted in its ruggedness than the image of the Australian Test captain. Mirthless, godless, forbidding men. Men with dirt under their nails and skeletons in their closets. Men the rest of the team tip-toe around. Them with their unkempt beards and upright collars, unbuttoned shirts exposing vast swathes of tan and hair.

Think Allan Border, who revealed he too could smile some 20 years after his career had ended. Think Steve Waugh, the father of mental disintegration, grim as the Reaper, squinting like Clint Eastwood in those spaghetti westerns. Think Ricky Ponting, who, like the Mafia, could change the authority’s mind with a stern look and a silent nod. Think Michael Clarke, a boy nicknamed Pup who promptly grew into a mongrel, the leader who suspended his mates on a whim.

Now, think Steven Smith, Australia’s 45th Test captain, and the man seated in front of me in a Rising Pune Supergiant T-shirt.

Smith has soft blue eyes, blonde hair and a cherubic face—like the loverboy from every American prom movie. His stubble-free chin has made him the latest poster boy for Gillette, the shaving accessories company that only tends to choose the good boys of sport—Roger Federer, Lionel Messi, Rahul Dravid—as brand ambassador.

On the field, his shirt is immaculately tucked in, buttoned up to his Adam’s apple and collar resting by his shoulders. Off the field, at post-match presentation ceremonies, or every time a microphone is thrust towards him, Smith ties his hands behind his back, conducting himself with the innocence of a schoolboy, and answers with the decency of a class prefect.

Even today, he speaks with great dignity about his time in India during this “incredible” Indian Premier League, the “honour” it has been for him to captain RPS, loving the “wonderfully different” Indian culture and his “sheer privilege” of working alongside local cricketers. Ten out of ten for eloquence, the kind of eloquence seldom spoken by incumbent Australian captains.

But don’t go by these skin-deep anomalies, for when it comes to leading a team out on to a cricket field, man-child Smith can go toe-to-toe with his most remorseless Australian predecessors. If Waugh and Ponting were masters at bending the rules, Smith—at the Bangalore Test in March this year—straight up snapped them.

When he was given out LBW in the second innings of the Chinnaswamy game, Smith signalled to his dressing room for assistance before reviewing the decision. A clear violation of the DRS rules, Smith’s hand gesture was caught by his opposite number, India’s Virat Kohli, and the broadcast cameras. At the press conference later that day, Smith insisted it was a “brain fade”.

I certainly didn’t ask to be Rising Pune Supergiant captain. When the owners told me, I said ‘okay, but make sure everything is all right with MS’. I’ve got huge respect for him, he’s been a terrific leader for a long period of time

“We get a little bit of white line fever every now and then,” Smith had said then. “I was looking at our boys, so shouldn’t have done that and it was a bit of a brain fade.” Kohli, though, had a different definition for Smith’s act: “I don’t want to mention the word, but it falls in that bracket. I would never do something like that on the cricket field.”

‘I would never do something like that on a cricket field’. If read in a different context, it could be an apt title for a biography on the life of Steven Peter Devereux Smith. You can love him or hate him, but cannot possibly ignore the fact that he has done things on a cricket field that perhaps no one else ever will. Or can.

We were first exposed to the curious, deliciously anomalous case of Smith’s career back in 2009.

The day in question was the eve of the inaugural Champions League Twenty20 in India, a tournament in which champion franchises from around the world would compete for what was then considered the ultimate prize in T20 cricket.

The smart money on the trophy’s winners, as a betting man will tell you in hindsight, was always on Australia’s New South Wales Blues, a team brimming with quality international players and Test cricketers. So when NSW Blues organised a ‘meet and greet’ session with the press in New Delhi, every media house worth their OB vans showed up.

At ITC Maurya’s ballroom, journalists made a beeline for Brett Lee, Simon Katich and Stuart Clark, NSW’s seasoned Test match stars. Even the table seating David Warner, the recent ODI debutante who wasn’t yet seen as a Test potential, and the late Phillip Hughes, who had made a sensational start to his career in South Africa earlier that year, was swarmed by cameras and mobile phones.

Unable to penetrate these reporter huddles, who by then had begun resembling hungry vultures, my former colleague and I were left with the crumbs—non-international players waiting pitifully behind empty tables. “So what’s your name and what do you do?” the colleague asked one such unknown at his table.

“Yeah, my name’s Steven and I’m a leggie,” Smith replied in earnest, unconcerned that we missed the name-card placed in front of him. Then he stood up beside his chair, tied his hands behind his back and repeated for our benefit: “A leg-spinnah.”

About three minutes into the interview that day in 2009, I had asked him what his dream was, as we sports journalists tend to ask the nobodies. “It’s to play for Australia, of course. Maybe one day to wear the Baggy Green [Australia’s Test cap],” he said. “I know I’m a long way from it, but that’s the dream. It always will be.”

The century against India has got to be my most memorable One-Day hundred. A semi-final of a World Cup, massive stage, difficult situation, came in early, my home ground, extra pressure because of that too. Then I just played the game, really

Eight years later, at that very ballroom in ITC Maurya, I reminded Smith—the wannabe leggie who magically transformed into the best batsman in the world and a man on the threshold of being termed an all-time great—of that conversation we had in slightly different circumstances. He laughed, shrugged his shoulders and said: “Now now, I never did make it as a leggie, did I?”

Not as a leg-spinner, no. Although, technically speaking, it was Smith’s relatively limited set of skills with the ball that gave him his first international break and also won him his Baggy Green.

When he first appeared on Australian cricket’s horizon back in 2009, Smith was saddled with the insane burden of blossoming into the next Shane Warne—only the greatest leggie to have ever lived. Ask any of Mumbai’s Shivaji Park boys who wore the label of ‘next Tendulkar’ in the 90s and the 2000s and they will tell you, from their government office cubicles, just how soul-sapping the tag really was. Warne 2.0, however, ploughed on.

“There’s a lot of batsman about, so bowling is going to be my chance to get to the next step, to get to the next level,” Smith is caught saying in a YouTube interview, recorded just before his 21st birthday. A few months later in 2010, thanks to the growing reputation of his right wrist, he made his Test debut against Pakistan at Lord’s. That career died after just three wickets and five Test matches, seven months after his dream of wearing a Baggy Green had come true.

“I wasn’t quite ready at that time. They sorted me out pretty quickly. But I am still grateful for that opportunity because it showed me what I needed to do and what I needed to be to get successful at that level,” 27-year-old Smith tells me today. “I decided that I wasn’t going to bowl as much and to focus on my batting—that was the best way for me to get back into the Australian side.”

The career that rose from the dead, the career that Smith resurrected, was in the avatar of a batsman. Exactly 800 days after his last Test, Smith returned in 2013. Against India, in India—far from the ideal place for a young Aussie batsman to show his mettle—on alien, spin-assisting tracks. Even less so for a boy making a comeback as a bowler-turned-batsman.

Chosen not so much on his merit as a run-getter but as a back-up after Australia’s captain Clarke had suspended four stalwarts for not doing their homework (the infamous Homeworkgate that would end up costing Clarke his reputation and coach Mickey Arthur his job), Smith re-entered a Test match venue in Mohali. He batted at number five and on a vicious pitch, scored 92 runs. It was his highest Test score and by far, at that point, his finest hour as an Australian cricketer.

I’ve been fortunate to have scored all those runs against India. That second innings hundred in Pune (first Test of the series this February) is perhaps my favourite hundred. On a tough wicket, I gave a few lives, but the processes and just the way I was able to score runs were extremely pleasing for me

“I always had a lot of belief in my skill set in playing good spin bowling,” says Smith, rubbing his palms together. “I learned a lot when I wasn’t playing. Even when I wasn’t picked for the first two Tests of that series, I spent a lot of time batting against Indian net spinners while the games were going on. That was really beneficial. I was ready to go. Getting those runs against some quality spinners—Ashwin, Ojha, Jadeja—it gave me a lot of confidence and I knew I could get runs against the best players around the world.”

It did. Four months after that knock, in the English summer of 2013, Smith played his first full-length Ashes series. In the fifth Test at the Oval (Australia had already lost the series 3-0), he struck an unbeaten 138—his first at the highest level across formats. Between that day when he raised his bat for the first time and now— nearly four years on—no one in the world has scored more Test runs (4,631), more Test hundreds (20) or had a higher average (an incredible 71.24) than Steven Smith.

Somehow, the ‘next Warne’ had found a way to become the ‘next Ponting’.

“If Smithy keeps maintaining what he’s doing now for another 100 Tests then he probably will end up being a better player than me,” Ponting, arguably the greatest batsman of the modern era with nearly 14,000 Test runs (second only to Sachin Tendulkar) and 41 Test centuries, has been quoted as saying. “He’s not doing much wrong at the moment, is he?”

Not while scoring runs, no. But Smith is easily, and there’s no nice way to put this, the ugliest best batsman cricket has ever seen. Those who don’t enjoy watching him bat (and there are many) have nicknamed him Shakin’ Steven; for Smith cannot stand still with a bat in hand. Before the ball is bowled, Smith’s assault-on- the-senses of a routine includes twitching his shoulders, nodding his helmet, adjusting his guard, touching his thigh pad, pulling up his right pad, pulling up his left pad, unstrapping and strapping the Velcro off and on his gloves, pushing his helmet back and sweeping the dust around his crease with his feet.

All this, before the ball is even bowled. And then he promptly shuffles across his stumps when the bowler is running in.

“He’s a little bit different, that’s for sure,” Ponting says with a smile on his face in a interview. “Everyone talks about how much he moves around in the crease—long way back, long way across— and how much he’s going to struggle against the moving ball. But at the end of the day, when the ball is released, his head is steady and his body is still and he’s in a perfect position to put the ball away.”

Being named the 45th captain of Australia’s Test team. Yeah, that would have to be my number one honour

Smith’s technique will never be endorsed by coaches but it works well enough to make Ponting utter these words: “He’s got great drive to be the best player the world has ever seen.” When I read that quote out to Smith, he hides his face: “Yikes, that’s flattering, isn’t it?”

Sure, a failed leggie-turned-‘next Bradman’, then.

SMITH’S PHANTASMAL rise as a cricketer, as a Bradmanesque batsman, has been tracked closely by us Indians. Not just because he is seen as the closest competitor to Kohli for the throne (Smith’s numbers are better, but we are a sentimental lot), but more so due to the shining Smith has taken to the Indian bowling attack.

Against India, the man nicknamed ‘Smudge’ has more than a third of his total Test centuries: seven. Four in one series played in Australia in 2014-15 and three in the return series in India that concluded this March. Only Ponting, Viv Richards and Garry Sobers—all with eight—have more. But understand this: Ponting, Richards and Sobers have played 29, 28 and 18 matches respectively against India. Smith has played 10.

“I’m not really sure, to be honest,” he says when asked why most of his special knocks have been scored against the Indian attack. “I think I got into a groove, maybe? Look, I’ve been fortunate to have scored all those runs against India. That second innings hundred in Pune (first Test of the series this February) is perhaps my favourite hundred. On a tough wicket, I gave a few lives, but the processes and just the way I was able to score runs were extremely pleasing for me.”

His unconditional love for a match-up against the Indians isn’t restricted to Test cricket. In just his second batting innings against India in an ODI, Smith struck a flawless century in Sydney, an innings that was the eventual difference between the two sides. That match also happened to be the semi-final of the 2015 World Cup, and Smith had sent MS Dhoni’s men packing.

“That’s got to be my most memorable One-Day hundred. You know, a semi-final of a World Cup, massive stage, difficult situation, came in early, my home ground, extra pressure because of that too,” he says, eyes widening, setting up the role he went on to play. “Then I just played the game, really. Got a hundred of 90-something balls, set the team up for a big total. Yep, that’s my best one, for sure.”

Today, Smith is easily the most decorated cricketer in the world, medals aplenty clanking by his chest. He is a 50-over World Cup winner, partly due to his unbeaten 56 in the final against New Zealand, where he hit the winning runs, a moment that, according to Smith, ‘is the one I’ll cherish the most when this is all done and dusted”. He has been named both ICC Cricketer of the Year and ICC Test Player of the Year, the two highest honours in the sport.

He is also the incumbent number one Test batsman in the ICC rankings. And the owners of the IPL team Rising Pune Supergiant paid Smith the biggest Indian tribute in their own way by asking him to lead the side for the 2017 season, instead of Dhoni—an IPL captain for each of the nine seasons prior to this and the best Indian captain of all time.

So what achievement among his many does he prize more than the rest, or is it difficult to choose?

Smith doesn’t bat an eyelid. “Being named the 45th captain of Australia’s Test team,” he says. “Yeah, it would have to be my number one honour.”

Smith’s stint as a captain is still in its nascence. Handed the keys to the manor only in mid-2015, at 25, he has had a mixed record as leader of the Australian team. While they beat West Indies and Pakistan in Test series at home and crushed New Zealand both home and away, Smith’s leadership was put under the microscope when his side was blanked 3-0 in Sri Lanka (“the lowest point of my career”) and 2-1 at home against South Africa, a result that had the cut-throat Aussie media up in arms. He was forgiven for the 2-1 series loss against India earlier this year, given his form with the bat and the fact the series was lost on the penultimate day of the final Test in Dharamshala.

Still, it wouldn’t be absurd to suggest that if Smith could lead his IPL side Supergiant to the title, in his maiden venture as skipper no less, it would be his finest hour wearing the armband yet. Insofar as his performance as IPL captain is concerned, Smith has given his owners—especially since they took the bold decision of asking Dhoni to stand down— plenty to cheer about.

“I certainly didn’t ask for it,” Smith says, looking a bit sheepish. “When the owners told me, I said ‘okay, but make sure everything is all right with MS’. I’ve got huge respect for him, he’s been a terrific leader for a long period of time.”

Last season, during Dhoni’s reign, Supergiant finished second from last, with all of five wins. This year, with Smith in command, the team has won eight matches from 12 games so far and is perfectly placed to make the playoffs.

“We’ve turned things around from last year and hopefully we can go the whole way,” he says. And have thoughts of winning the trophy crossed his mind yet? “Of course, that’s what we play for. Hell yeah, I think about it. We want to win, but we still have a fair way to go.”

If it were to happen, if Smith were to win the title on May 21st, the boy who wanted to be a leg-spinner would have found a most convoluted way to at long last emulate Shane Warne—the first captain to hoist this trophy.