In the first press conference since the tearful confession immediately after the sandpaper-gate scandal, Steve Smith’s eyes didn’t well up, his voice didn’t quaver, though he was awash with repentance and guilt. Addressing the media at the SCG, he admitted of ignoring something ghastly happening against spirit of the game right in front of his eyes.
“I don’t want to know about it and I walked away. That was my chance where I could have stopped something from happening,” he says.
From a leadership perspective that was a failure, a serious let-up, as grave an offence as partaking in it. “Something happened out on the field and I had the opportunity to stop it at that point rather than say I don’t want to know anything about it, that was my failure and I’ve taken responsibility for that,” he says.
For several months, he was in a “dark space”, though he says he has recovered. “I’m going okay now. Initially after South Africa I was going through a bit, in a pretty dark space and had some tough days but they are few and far between now. Still have my moments, ups and downs, but I’m going okay and heading in the right direction,” he says.
Moving on wasn’t easy, but he had people around him to offer emotional support, and he found solace in turning up for his childhood club, Sutherland Cricket Club in Sutherland, a suburb in Southern Sydney. It was former cricketer Stuart Clark, one of the committee members of the club, who suggested him to turn for the club sometime in July, and Smith didn’t think twice.
Why IPL is a boon for Smith
The back-to-back scheduling of IPL and World Cup in England has thrown up interesting situations. Most boards have asked their players to limit their IPL stint since they want them to be fresh for cricket's most celebrated tournament. But for Steve Smith it's different. Banned after the sandpaper gate for a year, Smith will return to international cricket in March next year. So the IPL in April-May provides him the perfect opportunity to face a variety of bowlers from across the world and find his feet again. No net session, or any pre-World Cup camp, could have given him such comprehensive work out. Pressure-packed T20 match situations, while playing for Rajasthan Royals, will help him to hit the ground running at the World Cup.
There was a decent smattering of crowd when he first walked in, and the sight of club captain Chris Williams eased his nerves. “I remember him as a young boy, in fact I’m the only player around when he started his career. I just took him to the nets and made him face the young bowlers. There was not much of a chatter, as the best way to make him feel comfortable was to make him bat, put him in the natural habitat,” he says.
Williams is a physical education teacher at Liverpool Boys High School, and his motley crew includes sales representatives, personal trainers, school students, council staff and cricket coaches. “They are of course overawed, but I tell them to give him his space, not to ask too cricketing tips or any naughty questions to ruffle him up. It’s tough to ruffle him anyway, for he’s a very loveable bloke,” he says.
Williams’s own popularity has spiralled since Smith joined the club. “Back in the school, all the kids wanted me to get his autograph, want to know what we converse, and what he likes, eats, and little things like that. Once I took them for a match we were playing and he patiently answered all their queries.”
Some of his friends taunt Williams, like asking whether he’s still the captain, does he feel nervous when setting the field, whether he instructs him how to bat, and if Smith will pick him for Australia when he returns. “I tell, look I have known him since he was 15-16, and he’s still much the same, humble and hard working. His knowhow of the game has considerably benefited us, and of course our matches draw a lot of crowd these days,” he says, though he admitted feeling a little odd to deputing him in fine-leg and third man.
In the very first match itself, Smith scored an 85 though they lost to Mosman Club by three wickets in a tense match. “Scott Rodgie who took his wicket was over the moon and I think he took the ball home,” he says. A undreamt of souvenir for a club cricketer. A lifetime of bragging rights too.
The big fixture, though, was against Randwick Petersham, the one featuring David Warner. In attendance at the Coogee Oval, Randwick’s home ground, was Steve Waugh, whose son Austin is Smith’s club mate. Randwick’s coach Greg Small says it was the biggest turnout he’d ever seen at the venue. “People were watching from everywhere, pushing each other for space. I was expecting crowd but not to this extend. You have to go back to the 70s to find a similar crowd at a time when international matches were rare.” he says.
However, both star attractions failed to ignite the mood; Warner made 13, Smith was slightly better, falling two short of his half-century. In the end, Sutherland won, thanks to Shane Watson, who crunched 63 with five sixes and Austin Waugh who took them home with an unbeaten 46.
“Smith spent a lot of time with the crowd, taking selfies and signing autographs. The cheeriness was back and we were all happy to see him in that frame of mind,” says Williams.
In the end, Smith steered them to T20 championship triumph, the first in their history, and Smith reciprocated the affection showered on him. “I’ve enjoyed playing grade cricket. We have had some success out here in T20 this year, winning the competition for Sutherland which the club got a great thrill out of and I got a great thrill out of being involved at the club,” he says.
Around the same time, he got married to his long-time girlfriend Dani Willis and joined hands with a men’s mental charity firm Gotcha4Life, propagating mental health awareness in a bid to reduce suicide tendencies (on an average six men and two women take their own lives due to depression). “I felt very glad because good things were happening in his life. We all want good things to happen in his life because at the end of the day he’s a nice bloke. We want to see him comeback to the Australian team and score hundreds like he used to,” says Williams.
However, they will have to wait till March for his ban to end, and Smith himself is not thinking too far ahead of his return. “I’m just moving forward day to day, doing what I need to do to prepare to hopefully get another opportunity to play for Australia and if that’s the World Cup and Ashes, so be it,” says Smith.
Smith, though, would know he would cop with a lot of sledging, especially if plays the Ashes. “I guess one thing that I’ve always done pretty well when I’m playing is just blocking out exterior noise and getting on with the job at hand. No doubt the Barmy Army are loud and you can’t block it out as such, but it’s just about staying in your own mind and not letting those external distractions take you over and staying in the moment and just getting the job done,” he says.
Staying away from international cricket, at his peak, would have definitely hurt him. “If I’m honest, it’s been tough at times. Particularly when the boys haven’t played their best in a couple of games. It’s been hard watching and knowing I can’t go out there and help them,” he says.
But he kept the afflictions of mind, if any, from his club-mates. “He was super-composed, always smiling and helping out. He was like just another player in the team, actively involved in strategising and discussions. He seemed to enjoy it, as much as we did,” says Williams.
Meanwhile, he committed a commercial faux pas, turning up for Vodafone advertisement, in which he’s speaking to the younger generation, while apologising for the ball-tampering incident.
Some felt it was ill-timed, some reckoned there was no need for it, some others felt he was gauging his market-value, which has taken a plunge since the scandal. But he defended it: “That ad wasn’t supposed to have gone out until after I spoke to you here today, actually. They liked it so much that they wanted to launch the campaign with it. I’ve been working hard recently,” he clarifies, his voice choking a bit.
The timing of the press conference too raised some eyebrow, but if anything he might have been relieved. For, at the end of the press conference, he could even muster a smile, not with the usual from-the-heart innocence, rather a forced one.
At least, he didn’t break down.