There are days in cricket when you see the game in patterns. Certain types of innings, types of spells. The anatomy of collapses, the breathing rhythm of a session. Far more rarely, there are days when you see something like nothing you’ve seen before.
Some players have this magic in their fingers. A mere mortal might do it once, somewhere in a career. The handful of immortals can do it a handful of times apiece, counting down their special days like the digits closing on a magic monkey’s paw.
Steve Smith has long been one of those. The batsman who plays like other batsmen don’t, the batsman who does what other batsman cannot. For four years that felt like ten years, he did exactly what he wanted and what the people watching didn’t yet know they wanted.
For a time, his innings to start the Ashes was merely very good, digging in for fifty while teammates fell. It moved to excellent as he partnered up with Peter Siddle for a century.
It became exceptional as he battered boundaries with Nathan Lyon, walking the tightrope with his last batting partner to a score of 144, rushing Australia to 282 when a total below 150 looked certain.
But for all of the quality of that innings, which would have been a wonder coming from anyone, the least believable thing was that it came from Steve Smith. It came in August 2019, nearly a year and a half since his last hit in Test cricket.
To do that — to play like that, with such concentration and polish and eventual flourish, to be the key player by such a margin, to dominate such bowling after seeing nothing like it for so long, to lose the rhythm of the longest game, to build up after being humiliated on a worldwide scale, and then to do this on the first day of the Ashes, when the pressure and the stakes are highest in this form of the game — that takes this performance beyond the excellent, beyond the outliers. That was one of the greatest innings of them all.
When Smith was banned for allowing cheating in his team, amongst the varied concerns and the turmoil he left behind was the more trivial concern that a player so good might not be seen at his best again.
For a long time the first day at Edgbaston didn’t promise anything special beyond the return of a star player. He came to the crease with his team in trouble, two down with 17 on the board, and slowly accumulated to right the ship.
James Anderson was already absent injured, but Stuart Broad was off on one of his customary Ashes tears, seaming and bouncing the Dukes ball. Chris Woakes was booming his inswingers off the straight.
While teammates were drawn to give an outside edge or more commonly beaten on the inside of the bat, Smith left everything alone that was too wide to interest him and stepped across to smother those coming in.
He shovelled runs into the leg-side when he deemed it safe, but otherwise just waited, just watched. By the time eight teammates fell he had only scored 42. Travis Head had made 35. The other seven had combined for 34.
This story seemed familiar: Smith with the technique exceeding his teammates, stranded for a modest score while they disappeared. In the grandstand I got the chance to ask his former batting coach Trent Woodhill what the difference was.
“He loves batting. It’s as simple as that,” said Woodhill. “Sometimes we want to make it more complicated than it is.
“There might be others who love it as much, but not more: Kane Williamson would be one, Virat Kohli. Most players can get result-oriented. You want to score an Ashes hundred or whatever it is. To those three guys in particular, the next ball is such a gift.”
So it seemed, as Smith was just determined to bat on. But of course the practical effect, with Anderson gone, was that Broad and Woakes began to tire while all-rounder Ben Stokes bowled a solid but largely unthreatening spell.
It was Peter Siddle’s support that allowed Smith’s day to go from excellent to exceptional. Siddle at number 10 didn’t have much expected of him, but he’s been in decent touch with the bat in county cricket and played the seaming ball well.
With barely a forward stride, he simply leaned forward at the crease to defend fuller balls, ducked under bouncers, and knocked the odd single where the chance presented itself.
Smith didn’t protect him from strike, and Siddle’s confidence grew with his innings, playing a few lovely drives to the boundary.
In the end he made exactly half of their stand of 88, not quite reaching a third Test half-century by the time he squeezed Moeen Ali’s off-break to short leg.
He had taken Australia just past 200, and the only question left seemed to be whether last man Lyon could take Smith from 85 to a century. But there was a lot more to come.
The milestone moment will be remembered long into the future. A mighty six off Moeen, then a cover-drive four from Stokes to raise the ton. Smith basking in the light and the applause that greatly outnumbered the jeers, and despite his elation celebrated in circumspect style. Closing his eyes, opening his arms, waving to all parts of the ground even if their allegiance lay against him.
Then as England threw the field back on the rope and tried to get Lyon on strike with singles, Smith ignored them and waited for the balls that he wanted to smash to the fence or over.
He bobbed and weaved around the crease, making the line that he wanted to hit. Over the leg side mostly, ranging from long on to fine leg. Boosting that score in a way that stung England every time, adding 74 of which Lyon made 12, and rounding off an innings that spanned all of the modes from sturdy mason to carnival attraction.
Next step will be handling the comedown. Smith has been winding himself up to incredible levels of tension all summer, and emotional overload was a factor in his disastrous tour of South Africa last year. One hopes he’s getting the right care and support this time round.
It’ll also be interesting to see how this performance is received. The redemption narrative will be laid on thick.
Current achievements don’t make past behaviour disappear, but appreciating a performance for what it was needn’t imply that all else is done and dusted.
Whatever happens next in this Test, the first day at Edgbaston should not have been able to happen.
No cricketer should have been able to do it. Coming back to Test cricket, getting used to the mode, Smith should have ground out a worthy 32, being praised for his resilience as he possibly built up towards a dogged hundred in match four.
There is no way known, of all the players in the team, that he should have been the one to see off a primed attack, resurrect a doomed endeavour, then flip the team that was on top and blaze the aggressors to all parts.
There is no way known, in all the time he could play the game from here on in, that he can play a more special innings than that. Steve Smith has had the trials. Today he had the magic.