How Smith became the next Bradman

WHEN Steve Smith pulled on his iconic baggy green cap for his Test debut at the home of cricket he was like a boy sheepishly trying on a pair of oversized trousers.

Literally and metaphorically, it just didn't quite fit. Smith's unusually small head meant the cap flopped around uncomfortably, but he was too bashful to say anything.

That was back in 2010 against Pakistan at Lord's where Smith batted No.7 in the order and bowled part-time leg-spin.

Instead of speaking up, Smith covered his blushes by putting some extra material in the back of the cap to fill it out until, years later, he felt confident enough to tell Cricket Australia of his problem and asked whether a special one could be made, which it duly was.

Next week Smith will be back at Lord's, not as a shy "bit of this and that" all-rounder but a colossus of the game after returning to Test cricket with twin centuries against England in the first Test at Edgbaston, following a year's ban for the ball-tampering affair in South Africa.

Smith has put the cricket world on notice: he is hungrier than ever. Bowlers be warned. Mr Insatiable is ready to eat your arm off.

Steve Smith (right) makes his Test debut with Tim Paine against Pakistan at Lords in 2010.
Steve Smith (right) makes his Test debut with Tim Paine against Pakistan at Lords in 2010.

He is being called the best batsman since Don Bradman and if he's not, then it's a mud pie in the eye for statistics which are the key metrics in a game in which numbers have always defined greatness.

Smith has an astonishing 25 centuries in 65 Tests. India's modern master Virat Kohli is one of the greatest century-hoarders the game has seen, yet has taken 12 more Tests to reach the same number.

Go back in history and it is apparent Smith is not simply walking with the gods of the game but quick-stepping past them.

Garry Sobers, the legendary West Indian Ian Chappell rates the best batsman he has seen, has scored one more century than Smith from 28 more Tests.

Great batsmen tend to have something about their body language that tells you they are great.

It was once said of Allan Border he had the walk of a defiant little dog out in a neighbourhood of bigger ones.

Ricky Ponting bounced to the wicket like a man quick-stepping to a newsagent to collect a winning lotto ticket.

Matthew Hayden puffed his chest out and wheeled his arms like a windmill ready to blow bowlers off their feet.

Steve Smith celebrates his century on day four of the First Ashes Test at Edgbaston this week. Picture: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
Steve Smith celebrates his century on day four of the First Ashes Test at Edgbaston this week. Picture: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

But Smith? Between balls he fusses about like a grade cricketer who has rushed to the ground on Saturday afternoon after a morning with the kids, rifling through an invisible checklist by shaking and touching his pads to make sure he hasn't forgotten something and playing a series of miniature defensive shots.

He looks nervous, yet experience tells us this is actually a batsman with the most electric reflexes in the game being so finely tuned his senses almost twitch in anticipation of the contest. Somehow it clicks.

People wonder what goes through his mind but the truth is, in the game's most decisive moments, he barely thinks at all. Batting to him is touch typing.

"The keys to my success are repetition and routine," he said.

"Hitting hundreds of balls pitched in a certain place in a certain way during numerous training sessions … my body simply goes into autopilot."

In grooving his game Smith noted a story about Barack Obama that during his terms as president of the United States he used to wear only grey or blue suits because he had so many decisions to make he thought he would concentrate on the ones which mattered most and just simplify the small stuff.

Steve Smith is applauded as he leaves the field after being dismissed for 142 on day four of the First Ashes Test at Edgbaston. Picture: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
Steve Smith is applauded as he leaves the field after being dismissed for 142 on day four of the First Ashes Test at Edgbaston. Picture: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Smith prepares for any eventuality to the point of obsession.

He carries up to 10 bats on tour and, much to the amusement of his teammates, up to 15 pairs of batting gloves because he sweats so much that he sweats over running out of gloves.

At Edgbaston more than 20 sweat-soaked gloves were lined up in the English sunshine. It looked as if they were from the team but they were one man's sweat and toil.

Smith is a fascinating study on the Ashes tour because there were times when he and fellow banned batsman David Warner had morphed onto each other.

It was widely anticipated that Warner - a self-styled scrapper from the wrong side of the tracks who gets off on being challenged by adversity - would be energised by the vocal Edgbaston Test crowd and Smith daunted by them.

Yet Warner was the one who looked cautious.

Smith is a creature of routine and used to arrive at the ground with the song 23 by US band Jimmy Eat World in his head, because he felt it roused him for the challenges of the day. He hums along with the song which finishes with "Don't give away the end. The one thing that stays mine."

There could be no more prophetic tune in a career in which the ending has seemed a mystery, but the man at the centre of it all is playing as if he owns the storyline.