As sports fans, we are used to seeing our heroes struggle. Injury and age are often a more formidable hurdle than the opponent.
A long-term lay-off due to injury has fans questioning whether greatness can be retrieved.
For female athletes, motherhood reshapes expectations.
As fans, we watch and wait. Will we see that same level of output? Will both mind and body behave as it once did?
Those questions have been circling Steve Smith for the last 16 months.
(AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)
While myriad questions were being asked when he was handed his year-long ban, one of the most common surrounded what impact it would have on his performance.
At the time he began his self-inflicted 12 months in sporting purgatory, he boasted a record that few could contemplate – 64 Tests which produced 6199 runs, 23 centuries and an average of 61.4.
Such was his dominance, he had earned from many the oft-used ‘best since Bradman’ tag.
Could he recapture those lofty heights? Or would it be a case of forever wondering what could have been had it not been for the moment of madness at Cape Town?
We got a glimpse at the World Cup – 379 runs across ten innings with four half-centuries. Solid, but not great.
But greatness in the limited-overs environment was not the norm for Smith anyway. He was always good in coloured clothing, but it was in creams that he was great.
Smith has a reputation for having a monastic devotion to his craft.
Vision emerged of him in the nets an hour before his team-mates arrived for the intra-squad game at Southampton ahead of the Test squad being finalised. He has spoken of the hundreds of balls that the team’s batting coach, Graeme Hick hurled down at him ahead of the first Test.
It was not long before Smith’s mettle was put to the test.
After winning the toss in the series opener, the tourists had been torn asunder at 8/122. In a not unfamiliar role, Smith stood at one end as his batting partners impersonated lemmings.
When Peter Siddle joined Smith in the middle, the fate of Australia’s first innings – and largely the team’s prospects in the match – rested on the former captain’s bat.
In concert with Siddle, and subsequently Nathan Lyon, Smith took the total to 284.
His was an innings of pure class.
The reaction on Smith’s face and the body language exhibited when he breached 100 spoke of a man who had fought many an internal demon during his exile. Even the hostility of the partisan crowd softened as his innings developed.
The boos and jeers that greeted him went he went out to bat were still there when he posted his 50 but by the time he reached his century they had given away, in the main, to respectful applause.
It was a case of regular transmission being restored.
(Photo by Visionhaus)
And, as if to totally replace the question mark with an exclamation point, Smith followed his 144 with a ton in the second innings.
This was a more flowing knock.
As his team reached a point of comfortability, Smith played with a more expansive freedom. When he finally fell for 142, he departed the middle safe in the knowledge that he had put his team in a position where a victory was the favoured result.
Throughout his 426 balls at the crease across both innings, there again seemed little semblance of a concerted game plan designed to claim Smith’s wicket.
The unique features of his game remained as strong as ever – the manic fidgeting, exaggerated footwork, rapier-like leaves outside off stump. Also present were the less obvious traits that help set him apart – unwavering patience and concentration.
Any attempt to set him up failed to last the distance.
Intermittently, England would set a field and try to bowl to it.
At times it was a leg slip and a line short of a length outside off stump. It was a holding pattern of sorts, the bowler waiting for a lapse in concentration, the batsman waiting for the ball to stray into his zone.
Seemingly, as night follows day, the bowlers’ patience eroded before his, as it has so often in Smith’s career.
Smith is the master of the stare-off. He seemingly never blinks. That is left to the opposing bowler and his skipper.
His ability to access pretty much every part of the outfield sets him apart. The pronounced walk across his stumps again brought a mountain of runs on the leg side.
(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
The opening Test of this series has laid to rest any prospect of a meek return to Test cricket by Smith.
He started the match with 23 centuries and an average of 61.4. He ends it with 25 centuries and an average of 63.0.
The key now for Australia is to not to become too reliant on Smith.
In the first innings, he was largely left to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Matthew Wade’s second innings 110 and Travis Head’s patient 51 are the type of digs the Aussies need more of.
In his last ten innings against England, Smith has made six centuries – including an innings of 239 – and scored 1116 runs at 139.5.
The way he batted at Edgbaston, it would not be beyond him to give Donald Bradman’s all-time series record a fright.
In 1930, The Don ground England into the dust with an aggregate of 974 runs – the highest by any player in Test history.
Smith already has 286 in the bank with the possibility of a further eight innings.
Next stop for the Ashes caravan is Lord’s.
In his last Test there, in 2015, Smith peeled off scores of 215 and 58.