It may sound remarkable, but heading into this fifth Ashes Test, only Peter Siddle had played more consecutive Tests for Australia than Steven Smith currently has. In an era in which Australia’s team undergoes more routine chopping and changing than Henry VIII’s wives, Smith’s seven Tests in a row is a record Australia should be ashamed of, and Smith awkwardly proud of.
More pertinently, when you consider that Australia’s selection merry-go-round appears fueled by an eternal hunt for individual brilliance and exceptional talent, it is all the more surprising that Smith, in the role of useful, handyman cricketer, has survived as long as he has.
In many ways Smith is the very antithesis of the cricketer Australia have long been yearning for. His role in the team is ambiguous, and his talents are not so much stamped on his forehead but more scribbled on his hand in a biro running out of ink. He doesn’t cover drive like Usman Khawaja or dominate like Phil Hughes or flick like Callum Ferguson, but instead he’s a busy cricketer, an energetic cricketer and an extremely useful cricketer.
His loose-limbed technique can at times resemble a straw man attempting to bat—there’s a lot of flailing arms and disjointed movements, ugly flashes and cumbersome prods. When he runs between the wickets, he draws comparisons to Gimli from Lord of the Rings with the way his helmet falls over his eyes. And his back lift is so violent it’s as if his bat—like a puppet on a string—is being yanked by a fielder at third man.
Smith is scrappy, snarly, feisty and ultimately a survivor. He’s the hyena in Australia’s starting XI jungle.
His maiden Test century made over the first two days here was a representation of the benefits of consistency of selection. There were some murmurings prior to this Test that Smith’s place in the team was under threat, and although having him dropped would not have been surprising considering Australia’s recent selection blunders, it would have been utterly inequitable.
There’s a case to be made that Smith has been Australia’s Player of the Series. He’s the fourth highest run scorer, he’s got the third best batting average, faced the second most balls as well as taking three wickets in England’s first innings at Lord’s. Furthermore, he played the first two Tests with a sore back that nearly ruled him out of the third Test. His position at No. 5 in the batting order is probably one place too high, but he’s carried on unperturbed, anchoring the innings well, and only Chris Rogers has passed 50 as many times as Smith.
Smith has also proved to be an invaluable team player, not afraid to take blows to the body, and is always seen energetically diving around in the field. What’s more, he remained not out after his century, but never for one moment played in a manner that was searching for such and played a selfless slog sweep to be dismissed 11 shy of a century at Old Trafford.
He now may have taught Cricket Australia the benefit of consistency of selection and the positives of perseverance.