Earlier this year, the Australian test side travelled to England for a five match test series which they drew two-all, enough for them to retain the Ashes that they had won back on home soil 18 months previously.
That they were able to do so was largely down to the performance of one man, former captain Steve Smith, whose scores with the bat proved to be the key difference between the two sides, with England just unable to bowl him out, even when the rest of the batting line-up was crumbling around him.
It was an even more remarkable feat given that he was returning to the test match arena after serving a one year ban from international cricket imposed for his part in the “Sandpaper Gate” ball tampering scandal which occurred during the Cape Town test against South Africa in 2018. That saw captain Smith and vice-captain David Warner banned from the sport, alongside Cameron Bancroft, when the latter was caught on camera trying to alter the shape of the ball with a piece of sandpaper.
That meant that every time Smith and Warner took to the field in England they were booed – not just with the good-natured banter reserved for the protagonists in this oldest of cricket rivalries, but with real enmity in some cases and the chant of “cheat” ringing in their ears.
And whilst the atmosphere appeared to affect Warner, who had a poor series with the bat, Smith simply rose above it all, to the extent that, by the end of the series, even the harshest English critics had become grudging admirers.
The statistics speak for themselves. 774 runs scored in four tests – he missed the third Ashes test at Nottingham with concussion after being struck on the head by a delivery from Jofra Archer in the match at Lords – at an average of 110.57. That included a double century, two more hundreds, and 3 fifties.
His achievements put him in select company of men who have scored 700-plus runs in more than one test series, joining Don Bradman, Gary Sobers, Sunil Gavaskar, Everton Weekes and Brian Lara.
In the tests he played in the summer, he scored more than 35% of all Australia’s runs, a feat that was all the more noteworthy for the circumstances in which he made those runs, often coming to the crease with the innings in disarray, after the top order had failed. That average puts him just short of Bradman on the all-time list in Ashes series.
The 30 year old from New South Wales has now aggregated more than 500 runs in each of his last three Ashes series – 508 in 2015, 687 in 2017 – 2018, and now 774 in 2019. No other batsman in history have scored more than 500 runs in three consecutive Ashes series – not even Bradman himself.
One thing that makes Smith stand out when he is at the crease, apart from his excellent batting technique, is that he is one of the few cricketers to wear a headband. This is not because he has particularly long hair which needs to be held back, or because he wears it as a fashion statement – although he is said to have modelled his look on his sporting hero Roger Federer. In Smith’s case it is more due to superstition.
He first wore a headband during an ODI against Pakistan, and scored an unbeaten century. In the following test series against India he scored three tons wearing a headband. The hair style may have got shorter since, but the headband stays.