How did Steve Smith get here?
The once-talented Australian leg-spinner who could bat a bit has somehow turned himself into a proper batsman—a patient one who can score runs against the best bowlers in the world without too much trouble. A fine 84 off 155 against South Africa on Day 2 of the third Test once again showed the world that he is no longer the clueless boy he once was.
Instead, he has matured into a sturdy middle-order batsman who can start slow, accelerate when needed and shepherd the tail when his side is in trouble. While captain Michael Clarke was nudging his way to a carefully crafted hundred, Smith was engineering his own delicate knock at the other end.
He was delicate yet brutal—as his hitting down the ground was the sort of strokeplay few have dared to try against South Africa's pace battery. But it was clean, confident and devastatingly effective.
Smith has gone from completely unorthodox to being a delight to watch with cover drives and leaves good enough for a textbook. It's not something that has happened out of thin air; it's taken hard work and quite some time, but his improvement has become more and more evident with each series.
When Smith was first picked to play for Australia back in July 2010, he looked like a fish out of water and almost as if he didn't know which end of the bat to hold. He scored a fifty in his second Test against Pakistan, but it wasn't exactly a convincing knock.
Another fifty followed against England a few months later, but Smith still looked a far cry from Test quality. He lasted just five Tests before being dropped and, by his own admission, he was picked for Test cricket too early.
At a press conference I attended during this series, Smith said the biggest thing for him has been to go back to basics and take some time to learn his craft once more:
I've always seen myself as a batsman more than a bowler and it's been satisfying to play well throughout the Australian summer. It's been good to put Australia in winning positions, and I'm just looking for some more consistency and big scores. I got picked in Tests when I was a bit young and inexperienced so I went back, played some shield cricket and worked on my game and learned my craft. To have picked a few years later again was a big thing for me and I hope I can keep on improving.
He was recalled for Australia's tour to India in 2013, and while he still looked suspect at times, he had the second-highest average of the tour with 40.25. It wasn't exactly earth-shattering, but the changes to his game were starting to show.
By the time the Ashes in England came around, Smith was once again one of the most impressive players. He was one of just four players to score over 300 runs on the tour, and those came at an average of 38.33 with two fifties and one hundred to his name.
Then, as the cliche goes, Smith "came of age" during the Ashes series in Australia with 327 runs at an average of 40.87, including two hundreds. He said:
It's been a technical and mental change. Throughout the summer back home, the biggest thing was my patience. I left the ball well and I waited for bowlers to get into my areas, whereas before I played shots that weren't there.
Those runs did come against a rather limp England attack, and the biggest challenge was always going to be away to South Africa. If this assignment was a test of Smith's staying power as a Test player, he has passed it with flying colours. He has scored his runs in this series and 58.25 on the tour, starting it off with a hundred at Centurion, 49 in Port Elizabeth and now another solid effort in Cape Town.
Consistency is what Smith has been searching for, and consistency is what he has found. Long may his form continue.
Statistics taken via ESPNCricinfo