Steven Smith sculpts the stuff of dreams

How about this? A raucously hostile English crowd, a dicey pitch, a day one batting collapse, a rearguard century as tough as it was masterful, a cover drive off Ben Stokes to get there, a foothold in the game, and adulation for one of the greatest innings ever played.
Amid all the isolation, the ridicule, the lonely batting sessions, the community service and the club games for Sutherland, that would have sounded pretty good. In fact it might have been the stuff of Smith’s dreams, or the script of a movie capturing the disgrace, recovery and redemption of an elite athlete. It is a dream, or a film pitch, no longer.
On day one of the 2019 Ashes, Smith played an innings as good as any in his career, possibly better. He played an innings as valuable as any in his career, possibly better. And he played an innings more cathartic to Smith and Australia than any in his career.
Wiggling, twitching and light sabre leaving in a fashion that felt even more exaggerated than he did before the ban, Smith blunted everything England, the pitch and the weather could hurl at him. In the course of doing so he also caused a perceptible change in the Edgbaston crowd’s response – booing overshadowed if never completely drowned out by ever more generous applause.
A lone hand first innings century, this was a kind of performance only seldom seen in Australian Test history – a couple spring to mind. In 1981, Kim Hughes fashioned an even 100 out of 198 against the West Indies on a difficult MCG pitch, getting to the milestone with nine wickets down. And in 1997, Steve Waugh battled to 108 out of 235 against England at Old Trafford on a surface where seam and swing were available in generous quantities more or less all day. Both knocks set up Australian victories and are still spoken about, decades later, but neither had quite the subtext of this one.
For almost three weeks now, Smith has been driving Australia’s assistant coaches to distraction with his ravenous appetite for net sessions and throw downs. He has hit thousands of balls, most of them delivered by the batting coach Graeme Hick, indoors and outdoors, morning and evening, optional sessions and mandatory, from Southampton to Birmingham. Asked whether the coaches effectively drew straws for who would throw to Smith, Justin Langer had laughed.
“Yep. Yep pretty much,” he said. “That’s why I was out on my knees before, because he didn’t have that long a net today. It’s almost when he comes out, you’re down on your knees going ‘oh thank you, thank you’ because he loves hitting balls, which means you’ve got to throw a lot of balls. Graeme Hick works very hard…”
The obsession and compulsion of Smith’s preparation ran alongside his litany of superstitions and routines, all compiled over the years to ensure he feels as comfortable and normal as possible at the batting crease. These extend from the order in which he puts on pads, gloves and helmet, to the taping of his shoelaces to his socks to ensure he does not see them when he looks down at has bat tapping by his right shoe. They help Smith to feel cocooned at the crease, and he most certainly needed that feeling for the scenario that confronted him at 17 for 2 in the eighth over.
In the hands of Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes, the ball was zipping, seaming and bouncing. Too much for David Warner, albeit via an erroneous lbw decision, too much for Cameron Bancroft. There was talk of a Newlands scandal hat-trick of sorts for Broad, but Smith responded with a broad bat and cool judgment of what to play and leave from the very earliest stages of his innings.