A week ago, Steve Smith saw the Sawai Mansingh Stadium for the first time since 2015, just before the franchise was banned for two years. It was at this venue, almost a decade back, that he had a career-turning chat with Shane Warne, who advised him to dwell on his batting rather than leg-spin bowling. And on Monday, against Kings XI Punjab, Smith would begin another journey, one to Australia’s World Cup squad and personal retribution.
The 12-month ban was not idly spent. He married his longtime girlfriend and turned up for childhood club Sutherland. Smith also racked up truckloads of runs, flew to T20 leagues in Canada, the Caribbean and Bangladesh, but none of these tournaments have quite the lustre of the IPL, where his performances will be valued as much as they would brighten his World Cup prospects. He arrived with his hands wrapped in braces, after surgery for a ligament tear in his right elbow, which he sustained during the Bangladesh Premier League.
He could hardly throw the cricket ball, it was reported on the first few days at the Royals’ nets, and spent most of the time watching his teammates practise, raving about the new pink-and-blue jerseys of the franchise and screeching “Halla Bol” in team videos, sporting an orange Jodhpuri turban and wearing a beatific smile.
In between, he even quipped at BCCI, saying they had to “answer why I was not allowed to play earlier.” Despite the sandpaper-gate induced one-year ban, he was eligible to play in domestic leagues, but Rajasthan Royals sacked him as their skipper, and Smith lost a $1.7 million contract besides valuable game time. He didn’t fuel the storm further, though.
But he has to put both pain and agony behind him, for at stake is not only the IPL but also a World Cup ticket. A month ago, his comeback seemed just a formality, a stroll back into the team, as soon as the ban ends on March 29. But Australia’s resurgence in the India series, where they overturned a 2-0 deficit for a 3-2 series victory, and their continued renaissance against Pakistan in the UAE has complicated the reintegration process for both Smith and David Warner, more so the former as he would be vying for the middle-order spots with several in-sync players. Warner’s could be a more straightforward comeback, as Australia is struggling for openers across formats.
From a pervading vacuum, the batting order is suddenly brimming with alternatives from a revived Peter Handscomb to the back-in-form pair of Aaron Finch and Shaun Marsh. The left-hander has four centuries in 13 games while Finch shrugged off his indifferent season with a hundred in the first ODI against Pakistan. Meanwhile, the lower-middle order is bolstered by the emergence of Ashton Turner and Alex Carey, and when you factor in Glenn Maxwell, Smith will have to literally earn his spot. In fact, before the IPL, he and Warner had visited the team in Dubai, a meeting where they “came in with bright eyes”.
However, skipper Finch commented that it won’t be a case of them walking straight into the dressing room. “What’s important is they’re really keen to slot back into how this current side works and what we’ve been doing really well. They were probably as nervous as anyone coming back into the group – you’d think guys with 20-odd Test hundreds would just come back in. But it is a different time and they have been out for quite a while.
But their respect for the group and everything was fantastic. I think it’s about managing not just their expectations – but everyone’s expectations – first up,” he said in a press conference the following day. Had it not been for the imminent World Cup, Smith could have prioritised a county stint, tuning up for the Ashes in the English summer. He was widely tipped to join Yorkshire in May, but with the World Cup spot not yet guaranteed, he chose IPL.
So the 12th edition of the IPL becomes even more relevant for Smith. Not just the returns with the bat — he has generally prospered in the IPL, with 1,703 runs at 37 with a strike rate of 131.70 — but also the pace at which he scores those runs and how his elbow holds up. In a social media chat, Smith avers with characteristic cheeriness that he’s timing the ball sweetly and is feeling uninhibited by the operated elbow. “Hitting as many balls as I can, really, over the next week, getting myself into a good rhythm. Started batting a couple of weeks ago back home, feel like I’m hitting the ball really well, so yeah, just try and get my rhythm right,” he says.
Another video shows him ferociously taking franchise teammate Ben Stokes to the cleaners. According to Royals skipper Ajinkya Rahane, Smith has been working hard as ever in the nets. “He’s really a great value addition for us. We all know how good Steve Smith is as a player and what he did in the past for Royals and for Australian cricket. Mistakes can happen and Rajasthan is a team that believes in backing players. I’m sure his inputs and experience will benefit us. With him, we will be an altogether different proposition,”said Rahane, whose team lost in the Eliminator last season. Armed with Smith, Rahane hopes his side would go that extra mile.
In the meantime, Smith has put in a lot of effort to polish his leg-spin and regularly bowled in the Caribbean Premier League. In one match, against Jamaica Tallawahs, he nailed rampaging openers Glenn Phillips and Johnson Charles to help fashion a two-run victory. But it’s his batting that both the Australian selectors and Rajasthan Royals will keenly watch.
Bowlers, though, will be keen to restrict him, and KXIP skipper Ravichandran Ashwin has already fired a salvo: “We all know he is a quality player and must have worked and prepared hard during the break, but comebacks are not easy. He must have put a lot of efforts for a comeback mentally. I am sure he would look to perform and, on the other hand, we would look to take advantage of his rustiness.”
Smith, meanwhile, might have taken considerable heart from Warner’s comeback knock at the Eden Gardens. A similar effort, and a season of sustained form, should set him off wheeling on the road to World Cup and forgiveness.