Smith stands tall at the tail of Australia's odd summer of cricket
This has been a strange summer for Australian cricket. The national team emerged from darkness into the light by virtue of a single performance, under lights, in Adelaide. The domestic game surged forward courtesy of its much-loved medium of the moment, the Big Bash. Such was the tournament's impact that one or two senior state players questioned its overwhelming impact on the national game at large.
For ever the Sheffield Shield has dominated standards and ambition in Australia; now the suspicion is that the T20 game is doing a sledgehammer job on every format of cricket that has gone before it. Cricket Australia vehemently denies this, pointing at the still impressive television ratings for Test matches and the one-day game as evidence of the balance of power. The trouble is that these things take time to infiltrate the ecosystem, and then one day everyone wakes up to the damage and realises it is too late to reverse its momentum.
It came as a surprise to see more games added to the schedule for next year's Bash - given the show runs like clockwork as it is - and the move smacked of the goose and its golden eggs. Doubtless the corridor of power felt that an Ashes summer would be bulletproof, or even that the Ashes matches themselves would inspire such an appetite for the game that the lip-licking cricket fan would wallow in a greater wealth of cricket content. Maybe, but maybe only for next summer; for sure, there is no going back. The IPL began as a competition nicely contained, with an identifiable bracket, that caused little alarm, even among purists. Now it sucks so much oxygen out of the game that many of the players who take advantage of the breadth of their opportunities have forgotten what led to their till-ringing options in the first place. The T20 leagues are on a route march and one day we will all look back and clearly identify the days when, for better or worse - and there are understandably different takes on that - the game changed irrevocably.
If we say that the Big Bash has shaped the summer of Australian interstate cricket, so we can also say that Steven Smith has shaped the summer of international cricket. The prequel had not gone well - all three Test matches lost in Sri Lanka and five consecutive one-day games haemorrhaged in South Africa.
Then Australia played pretty poorly to lose to South Africa in Perth and truly dreadfully to be humiliated by Vernon Philander and Kyle Abbott in Hobart. Smith stood alone on the burning deck of his ship, watching as those chosen to sail with him could barely cope with the roll of the swell, never mind the job of setting the sails and catching the following breeze. After the match, he gave a series of excellent interviews, making his criticisms honestly and passionately before demanding for himself a more relevant decision-making role going forward. Most of all, he needed the vital heartbeat of youth alongside him. In the nanny state of modern sport, cricket is the one game left where the captain can take full responsibility for the team. Not many ruling bodies allow this to be so, and their teams are worse for it. But Cricket Australia woke up in the nick of time.
The Hobart match and its fallout late in November were quickly followed by the Adelaide day-night Test, and this fortnight proved to be the making of Smith. His sparkling gifts with bat and ball had never been in doubt but there was something one-dimensional about him that limited, stifled even, his capacity to see the big picture. He was Mr Nice Guy, kind of shy, happy in the corner making hundreds.
At Bellerive he stood alone and helpless at the non-striker's end while the batsmen on strike - glorified by the baggy green - miserably failed to justify the faith bestowed upon them. In these hours, as he fought to save the face of Australian cricket, he grew up and into the job of Australian captain. The transformation was remarkable. During the immediate aftermath, his interviews were crystal clear. Each sentence came from a singular mind, rather than the body corporate; each plea was on behalf of a country with the game in its blood. Cricket has mattered to Australians from the day that Fred "The Demon" Spofforth bowled out a WG Grace-fuelled England at the Oval in 1882, he implied, but we failed to honour that legacy.
Each innings since has been played for others every bit as much as for himself: any self-absorption is now driven by the greater good. Each catch - those dropped and those held - provided insight. The drops, and suddenly there were a few because the Smith mind was racing with other matters, caused pain, for they failed the standards demanded of others. Those taken were celebrated with the glee of a common ground. Around him were tyros, eager to learn and to fulfil their dreams. Within a week the energy of the team changed: fear was replaced by a formidable ambition.
South Africa, meanwhile, were reeling from the accusation that Faf du Plessis had altered the condition of the ball with saliva from a mint in his mouth - an idea angrily denied by both du Plessis and his players. Hashim Amla collected them together to make a statement in support of his captain. Smith added colour to the publicity by saying that du Plessis was hardly the Lone Ranger: that they were all at it. A week or two earlier he might have stayed quiet on such a thing, but emboldened by this newfound sense of worth and power, he spoke for the players - whatever their nationality.
The Australians played the Adelaide Test with verve and purpose. They are now two from two under the floodlights. South Africa were not distracted - du Plessis himself made a magnificent hundred - and the dead-rubber bounce theory was all but irrelevant given the needs of both captains. The fact was that Smith had cut through layers of management and was left to lead a young and fearless team that saw only opportunity. The five changes from Hobart were well thought through and able enough to carry the days. The overriding memory, and perhaps Smith's greatest delight, was the way in which Matt Renshaw and Usman Khawaja - opening instead of David Warner, who had spent too long off the field earlier in the day - survived the first evening's assault by South Africa's impressive seam attack. Sure, they played and missed at more than their fair share during 12 overs of hardcore Test-match bowling but you earn your luck in this age-old game, and to make it to the close unbeaten, given the previously feeble resistance in the series, was both an achievement and a statement.
The corollary of Adelaide was a proper thumping of Pakistan. It does not, we were reminded, take long to get on a roll. Sport's grail, momentum, was now with Smith and his dancing bears. A month before the Pakistanis came to Brisbane, they were ranked the No. 1 test Team in the world, but four weeks later they left Sydney red-faced and relegated to halfway down the table. Australia's cricket, if not perfect, had its ruthless face back.
Smith still has much to think about. His team, and the Shield and BBL cricketers who form the breeding ground for it, are yet to find agreement with Cricket Australia over the new revenue-share agreement. CA have bent over backwards to communicate their thinking on these negotiations to all the players, and specifically to work with Smith and Warner, the vice-captain. Understandably, if not necessarily self-servingly, Smith and Warner have allowed the Australian Cricketers' Association to take control of this process and of the complex MOU that will be its eventual result.
Moreover, Smith has India to conquer. Over four Test matches, he must find a way to claim Virat Kohli's wicket on eight occasions. Having pulled that rabbit out of the hat, he then has to outsmart M Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and friends. It is a tall order. Almost as tall as making the required amount of runs to stay in the game in the first place. There will be a fascination in Smith's private battle with Kohli. They are two of the five best batsmen on the planet. Kohli does not have to face the Indian spinners in their own conditions. Smith does. The weeks ahead are to be savoured. If Smith manages to come out of India unharmed, or even enhanced, his position of strength so suddenly assumed in the past couple of months will be all but unimpeachable.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK