Jofra Archer’s concussive missile aside, Steve smith channeled Don Bradman on a swaying ash tour, and a fundamental demolition of Pakistan and New Zealand at home seemed like a certain reminder.
Yet Bradman was the only sure thing in cricket history and it turned out, as Smith went from dominating England to digressing against lesser rivals, more Ben Affleck’s Batman than that of Christian Bale.
After playing the superhero after invariably dismal opening batting appearances in Old Dart, Smith seemed a bit lost for identity last summer as his ex-exile David Warner and mini-me Marnus Labuschagne him. were flying thunder. What to do when the day is already won, the opposition already broken by his teammates?
He averages 110.57 against the Poms, 774 points in seven innings with a best of 211. Three centuries. Ben Stokes, another freak of nature, averages 55.12.
Smith apparently had a blank check for the coming summer and yet he averaged 20 against Pakistan (40 runs in two innings) and 42.8 against New Zealand (214 runs in five innings). A total of 254 runs from five tests, without centuries; it was a quick comeback to earth for a man who averaged 62.84 over his 73-game career, weighing 26 tons.
It took a coat of varnish on his triumphant return to England. Not everyone sits down all night to watch The Ashes, a series in which he has been booed endlessly by English fans.
The determination seemed palpable in England and less once at home, if only because of recurring circumstances of ho-hum against disappointing opposition. Summer at home made household legends and Smith missed his first chance to win back mass hearts and minds after Cape Town.
Smith was largely pardoned by the Australians for his sandpaper and bullet handling offenses. It was the captain who had closed his eyes, not the super villain who had done the dirty deed. There is little ill will left; towards Smith the drummer, at least, as opposed to Smith the skipper.
India at home was the series he missed due to his one-year ban from playing. Australia really struggled, pulling off a historic 2-1 loss as Smith and Warner lick each other’s injuries.
India at home is a series that matters, with modern relevance to follow only the ashes. Smith will really want success this summer. Arguably his best home streak to date remains England’s 4-0 triumph in 2017-18, in which he scored 687 points in seven innings to 137.4; three centuries with a best of 239.
It was extraordinary, but it was also three years ago and just before that fateful tour of South Africa. He involuntarily braced himself for the greatest possible fall. We haven’t seen him in mid-flight, dressed in white during mass market viewing hours, since the SCG test in January 2018.
The other contender as Smith’s best home campaign? Against India in 2014-15. A series of megastar-making has seen him strike for centuries in the first innings of every test over the course of the four games. He looted 162 paces in Adelaide, 133 in Brisbane, 192 in Melbourne and 117 in Sydney; finishing with 769 points to 128.16 in eight innings.
This was made all the more impressive by the fact that Smith took over as captain of an injured Michael Clarke after the first test, in which Virat Kohli threatened an unlikely Indian victory with two centuries.
Beyond that, his beloved teammate Phillip Hughes had just died and Australian cricket was in mourning. Smith couldn’t have been more impressive in a time of such immense gravity.
That was six years ago and it looks more like 16. He and Jacques Kallis were the only men to score centuries in every game of a four-test series. It was beautiful but it seems like a distant memory with everything that has happened since. More so, perhaps, after last summer spent without another big score to conjure comparisons to The Don.
This summer, Smith assured Australia he had “found his hands.” He backed up that promise with a pair of breathtaking ODI centuries against India, hitting double triple digits in just 62 balls. It was worrying; his ODI career strike rate is “only” 88.49.
Will a test match reminder follow, in a marquee series? The form is there, but with a fright on the back launched before the day-night opening of Adelaide.
And the hype is a bit lacking. Smith didn’t dominate the narrative. This was reserved for the chaotic opening debate, with Warner and Will Pucovski injured, Joe Burns at bat as Joe Bloggs, and did not remind Marcus Harris of any certainty of playing anyway; perhaps leaving the task to Matthew Wade, who has never opened in first class cricket.
On paper, on form, it won’t be like last summer. Smith’s contribution will not be reduced on imports, thanks to a first order from Australia. He should have his chance to beat and beat and beat.
Despite all the pain Cape Town has caused, two things have remained constant.
Steve Smith loves to fight. And Australia love to watch it beat; even more so when he puts hapless rivals to the sword.
Especially with Kohli, a rare peer, returning home after a test, Smith should be given the opportunity to take center stage.
When he did so against England three years before, he made 141 steps in Brisbane, 239 in Perth and an unbeaten 102 in the MCG, coupled with first-set scores of 76 and 83 in Melbourne and Sydney.
It starts with the Adelaide oval pink ball test. Jasprit Bumrah and Ravi Ashwin will play spoiler. Smith will play out his inimitable personality and maybe Australia will get the redemptive feat they crave – 12 months later than expected and two years after an unprecedented loss to India marked by his glaring absence.