“Who writes your bloody script then?”
Part awe, part admiration, small-part envy, Graham Gooch asked Ian Botham thus, at The Oval in August 1986. The legendary all-rounder was coming off a three-month ban after admitting to using marijuana, and announced himself with a wicket with his first ball back. Bruce Edgar was Botham’s 355th Test victim, caught by Gooch. When, a little while later, Jeff Crowe was dismissed leg before, Botham went past Dennis Lillee and took sole possession of the then record for the most Test wickets.
Botham has always been a larger-than-life persona, imposing and irresistibly compelling on the field, colourful and controversial off it. He grabbed eyeballs with his wondrous all-round skills – beefy ball-striking in keeping with his nickname, the happy knack of picking up wickets with seemingly the most innocuous of balls, and exceptional reflexes and agility in the slip cordon. He was the ultimate showman whose legend was cemented when he single-handedly resurrected England’s flailing Ashes campaign in the summer of 1981 by rallying the hosts from the depths of despair to an extraordinary 3-1 triumph.
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Last Thursday, ‘Beefy’ might have been tempted to reprise Gooch’s words and ask Steve Smith, “Who writes your bloody script then, mate?” Shyly, Smith might have replied, “Why, me, of course!”
Botham was in the commentators’ box as Smith celebrated the end of his 15-month exile with a knock for the ages at Edgbaston. In itself, his monumental 144 was a masterpiece. Still on a high after their ICC World Cup triumph two and a half weeks back, England were all over their old foes on the opening day of the Ashes, whittling through a fragile batting line-up to leave Australia gasping at 122 for eight.
The ball was nibbling around off the deck, complementing the woes of a batting group that also had to grapple with atmospheric assistance for the faster bowlers. Stuart Broad was knocking people over for fun, Chris Woakes looked deadly dangerous, World Cup hero Ben Stokes found his rhythm after early blues courtesy a malfunctioning radar. James Anderson, who hobbled off with a calf injury after bowling just four overs, was barely missed as England eyed a swift end to the innings.
All along, though, they were wary of the Smith threat. While one batsman after another disappeared with the ungainly rapidity of falling autumn leaves, the former captain held firm. He was beaten, he was rapped on the knuckles, he was bruised, but he wasn’t done. He repelled England’s best with greater ease the longer he stayed out in the middle. Beyond a point, England stopped trying to get him out, turning the attention to the other end where first Peter Siddle, then Nathan Lyon helped their mate haul the total to 284, and the shores of respectability.
Smith’s was a magnificent compilation, a lesson in the art of innings-building in Test cricket, the perfect illustration of mind over matter. Given the context of the day, the match, the series, and given the supreme disarray in which his team found itself. For that alone, his epic 144 was worth 10 on 10. But this wasn’t about just this day, this match, this series, was it?
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Like David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, the openers who barely troubled the scorers, this was Smith’s first taste of Test cricket since the infamous Cape Town Test of March 2018. Since sandpapergate, and the subsequent recriminations, anger, disgust, distrust and a sense of betrayal back home. Since a one-year ban, a punishment that, driven by public sentiment, was far harsher than the crime deserved. Smith’s culpability in the ball-tampering fiasco at Newlands stemmed from his passivity as skipper while the shenanigans unfolded around him. In his silence lay his complicity; in his unchecked tears at a press conference, with his father by his side, upon returning in disgrace to Australia lay his contrition.
Thursday offered him his first shot at redemption, at winning back some of the enormous goodwill he had squandered a year and a quarter back. He had already made a reasonable comeback at the World Cup, to unending boos from unforgiving and occasionally spiteful crowds that raised even Virat Kohli’s hackles. But this was different. This was the Ashes, hailed as the contest to beat all contests, the showpiece of Test cricket, the mother of all battles.
Predictably, the Australian trio was greeted with boos and taunts from the Edgbaston crowd that also came adequately armed with sandpaper flashed generously at every possible opportunity. The jeers at Bancroft’s dismissal segued seamlessly into a greeting for Smith; it would have been humanly impossible for anyone not to have taken notice of, or be affected by, the constant noises of indignant disapproval. Smith’s character outed in the equanimity with which he took the ill-natured ribbing, in the single-mindedness of purpose that permitted him to sweep the uncontrollable to the periphery and concentrate on the one thing he could – the pesky red Duke’s ball.
Smith is among the premier batsmen of his generation, alongside Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root. He has 24 centuries and as many fifties in 65 Tests; astonishingly, he averages in excess of 62. It’s easy to forget that in his first five Tests, he played as a leg-spinner who could bat a bit. It’s easier too, to concentrate on how he bats, the awkward positions he gets into, and continue to marvel, after all these years, at how he has been so prolific with a technique as bizarre and singular as imaginable.
The word ‘talent’ has seldom been used synonymously with Smith, possibly Australia’s greatest batsman since The Don. Maybe because he isn’t easy on the eye, maybe because he doesn’t elicit the admiring ooohs and aaahs so much as the disbelieving ohs and ahs when he walks right across his stumps and whips balls from outside off regularly through mid-wicket and square-leg. We reserve that exalted term for those that cut a pretty, dashing, elegant picture. A Kohli, for instance. Or Rohit Sharma. Or Prithvi Shaw, if you like.
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Kohli and Rohit have both carved their own niche, the latter primarily in white-ball cricket, but what of Shaw? Is his ‘talent’ getting in his way, becoming his worst enemy? Is it driving him towards laziness and a sense of entitlement, preventing him from embracing the work ethic that his India captain is such a vocal advocate of? Is he taking too much for granted, refusing to learn from indiscretions of similarly talented predecessors who were so swayed by the good things in life that they failed to comprehend how those good things were coming their way?
In a very short international career, Shaw has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. After a stirring century on Test debut, he has played just one further Test. He picked up an ankle injury early on the tour of Australia last year, but that wasn’t the only reason why he was sent back home following the Perth defeat as whispers of off-field discipline gradually gained weight. Now, he has been suspended for a positive drug test, whose fallout has been handled extremely poorly by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Shaw might well have inadvertently allowed the prohibited substance to invade his system, but he has been in the cricketing system long enough to hide behind ignorance and oversight. More likely, the problem is with the system itself, but how does that help Shaw? It is in the young man’s best interests to return and retain his focus in cricket. If he is looking for inspiration, he needn’t look beyond Steve Smith.
(Kaushik is a veteran cricket writer who has reported on over 100 Tests. He co-authored VVS Laxman's autobiography '281 and Beyond')
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