Steve Smith tries to debunk Ashe’s link in Sussex

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By Webdesk

At another time, the arrival of an Australian from such a tribe – vice-captain, no less – ahead of an Ashes summer might have had more fanfare. The press greets him from the plane, photographers photograph him pushing a trolley through immigration, eyes bleary in the national team’s attire.

Instead, the 33-year-old arrived in the UK with little fanfare over the weekend ahead of a three-game spell with Sussex. Australia is coming, but not alone and certainly not all at once. Nevertheless, when Smith was officially unveiled at the pavilion at Hove, decked out in the club’s disarming baby blue trimmed stock as the Pigeons fed on the freshly laid seed on the outfield, the Ashes gears finally started to turn.

This will be his first taste of the County Championship. An earlier dalliance in the shires came in 2010 via a short stint for Worcestershire in the T20 Blast. Coincidentally, they will be his first opponents before he takes on Leicestershire and then Glamorgan, his only game “at home”.

Older and wiser, he is prepared to make himself as useful as possible to a young side slowly changing their fortunes, with runs on the pitch and advice off the pitch. Sussex head coach Paul Farbrace also believes that as he continues to pose the county and domestic system as a whole will benefit from Smith’s time in the system. The latter in particular was emphasized.

Farbrace certainly doesn’t subscribe to the view that giving a rival batsman valuable preparation ahead of the Ashes is akin to professional treason. “I have good friends who think we’re helping Australia win the Ashes,” he said with a smile. “We’re not at all.”

Nor does he dislike some of the talk that he, CEO Rob Andrew and Sussex are hurting English cricket. Talking at all is a good thing.

“Sport is about opinions,” said Farbrace. “That’s what we love about the game. I have a very strong opinion about Chelsea. The fact that people are talking about Championship cricket is only good for the game.”

It was up to Smith to respectfully cut through the noise. “I talked a lot about getting used to the conditions,” he said. “But you have to remember I’ve played a lot of cricket in England before. So the circumstances aren’t really new to me, if that makes sense.” It certainly does: a record of 16 Tests, six centuries and an average of 59.55 here suggests he is all too familiar with these circumstances.

After opting to skip the IPL by not participating in the auction, Smith has spent the last few weeks in Australia. That downtime meant enough time to make bold proclamations on the other side of the world.

After Cricket Australia re-posted Stuart Broad’s quotes that he would love to see Smith try and emulate England’s attacking style of play and “Skype early doors from one to half”, England quickly took to the comments section for clarification to give. “Honestly, I love it every time we get him out, in any variety, because he averages 60,” Broad wrote. Smith, thumbs idle, saw an opportunity and replied, “hopefully 65 by the end of the summer”.

“I had a friendly chat with Broady, as you all probably saw recently,” Smith said of the exchange. So what did he think of Broad’s claim that the 2021-22 series, which England lost 4-0, was an “empty series” due to Covid restrictions in place?

“I mean, it was kind of strange,” Smith said. “We were all there and playing so it was a bit strange, you know? He’s a nice guy and likes to throw out some good banter, so it’s all part of it.

“They certainly weren’t ideal scenarios. But the whole world was going through it and we were in the middle of a pandemic so we couldn’t really complain too much. We were really able to do what we love so I actually not much more to add.”

No doubt more conversations will follow. For now, Smith is targeting a return to competitive action, having started on Monday with a session with the 2nd XI before batting with the first team on Tuesday morning.

He did so in a net alongside Cheteshwar Pujara, his captain for these three games, before becoming an opponent for the WTC Final at The Oval in a month’s time. With Pujara hitting three, Smith will pass on five. “I haven’t been this low in a while,” he said. “I’ve played against Pujara a lot and seen him make a lot of runs. So it would be nice to spend some time with him in the middle and put some good partnerships together.”

Another intriguing teammate dynamic to negotiate will be alongside England sailor Ollie Robinson. Robinson is optimistic about the hosts giving Australia “a good shelter”. He also turned the story around that Smith is at a disadvantage to the national side at Sussex by suggesting it could be good to “see him better in the nets”. Robinson even suggested that he choose not to bowl to Smith to keep his cards close to his chest. He finally did so on Monday, with good results.

“Ollie actually bowled for me yesterday,” Smith revealed. “I left a third ball and it knocked me over. So it wasn’t ideal.

“But I was really impressed with him when he was in Australia. I thought he had really good skills. He’s quite tall, he hit some good areas and it looks like he’s gotten better since then. So I’m looking looking forward to playing with him this week.”

Smith stated that it also allows him to exert dominion over Robinson, touching on an aspect that was lost in framing it all. Despite everything Smith has accomplished so far, this summer presents a huge opportunity

There is something modern about becoming world test champion. The traditional appeal of the Ashes is a little bigger this time around as it will be Smith’s fourth tour of England and he has yet to win one. Australia’s last win on these coasts was in 2001.

“This will be my fourth (Ashes) tour. Could this be my last? Potential.”

Steve Smith

They were close in 2019, losing the final Test at the Oval to draw twice. Keeping the urn four years ago didn’t make winning to any degree academically, though Smith’s exploits in that series propelled him to legendary status.

He hit 774 runs at an average of 110.57 from just four matches after missing the Headingley Test after being felled by a Jofra Archer bouncer at Lord’s. As much as that series was cathartic for Smith following his return from a year-long ban for his part in the 2018 sandpaper controversy, the result is something he’s eager to rectify. Ideally, while posting similar numbers.

“It would be huge to tick off the bucket list, I think,” said Smith of the prospect of winning in England. “We didn’t manage it, but we were close last time and couldn’t cross the line. It’s definitely something that would be high on my bucket list, and everyone else on the team as well.”

“I have a lot of good memories of 2019 and the way I played and I would like to repeat that and do something similar.”

If all goes well, Smith’s 100th cap will come in the third Test at Headingley. Appropriate given that it was on his first trip to England in 2013 that he batted the first of 30 centuries, beginning that transformation from clumsy leg spinner to peerless modern batsman. Could this be his last tour?

“This will be my fourth (Ashes) tour. Could this be my last? Potentially. I mean, I’m 34 in just under a month. I’m not sure I’ll be back. We’ll see.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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