Jofra Archer’s concussive missile aside, Steve Smith channelled Don Bradman on a swinging, seaming Ashes tour and a seminal demolition of Pakistan and New Zealand at home seemed a certain encore.
Yet Bradman has been the only sure thing in cricket history and so it proved, as Smith went from dominating England to digressing against lesser rivals, more Ben Affleck’s Batman than Christian Bale’s.
Having played superhero after invariably dismal opening batting displays in the Old Dart, Smith seemed a little lost for identity last summer as fellow former exile David Warner and mini-me Marnus Labuschagne stole his thunder. What was he to do when the day was already won, the opposition already broken by teammates?
He averaged 110.57 against the Poms, 774 runs from seven innings with a best of 211. Three centuries. Fellow freak of nature Ben Stokes averaged 55.12.
Smith seemingly had a blank cheque for the looming summer and yet, he averaged 20 against Pakistan (40 runs from two innings) and 42.8 against New Zealand (214 runs from five innings). A total of 254 runs from five Tests, with no centuries; it was a brisk fall back to earth for a man who averages 62.84 across his 73-match career, with 26 tons.
It took a coat of varnish from his triumphant return in England. Not everyone sits up through the night to watch the Ashes, a series in which he was incessantly booed by English fans.
The determination seemed palpable in England and less so once home, if only due to recurring ho-hum circumstances against disappointing opposition. The home summer makes household legends and Smith missed his first chance to win back mass hearts and minds post-Cape Town.
Smith has largely been forgiven by Aussies for his sandpapering, ball-tampering trespasses. He was the captain who turned a blind eye, not the super-villain who did the dirty deed. There remains little ill-will; towards Smith the batsman, at least, as opposed to Smith the skipper.
India at home was the series he missed as a result of his one-year playing ban. Australia duly struggled, copping a historic 2-1 defeat as Smith and Warner licked their wounds.
India at home is a series that matters, spiking in modern relevance to trail only the Ashes. Smith will badly want success this summer. His finest home series to date arguably remains 2017-18’s 4-0 trouncing of England, in which he made 687 runs from seven innings at 137.4; three centuries with a best of 239.
It was extraordinary, yet it was also three years ago and right before that fateful tour of South Africa. He unwittingly set himself up for the greatest possible fall. We haven’t seen him in full flight, wearing whites in mass market viewing hours, since the SCG Test of January 2018.
The other contender as Smith’s finest home campaign? Against India in 2014-15. A megastar-making series saw him hit centuries in the first innings of every Test across the four matches. He plundered 162 not out in Adelaide, 133 in Brisbane, 192 in Melbourne and 117 in Sydney; finishing with 769 runs at 128.16 across eight innings.
It was made all the more impressive by the fact that Smith assumed the captaincy from an injured Michael Clarke after the first Test, in which Virat Kohli threatened an unlikely Indian victory with twin centuries.
Above and beyond that, beloved teammate Phillip Hughes had just died and Australian cricket was in mourning. Smith could not have been more impressive at a time of such immense gravity.
It was six years ago and feels more like 16. He and Jacques Kallis were the only men to have scored centuries in every match of a four-Test series. It was magnificent but it seems a distant memory with all that has since transpired. More so, perhaps, after last summer slipped by without another big score to evoke comparisons with The Don.
This summer, Smith assured Australia that he’d “found his hands” again. He backed up that promise with a pair of breathtaking ODI centuries against India, both times reaching three-figures in just 62 balls. It was ominous; his career ODI strike rate is ‘only’ 88.49.
Will a Test match encore follow, in a marquee series? The form is there, albeit with a back strain scare thrown in before the Adelaide day-night opener.
And the hype is absent, somewhat. Smith has no dominated the narrative. That’s been reserved for the chaotic opener debate, with Warner and Will Pucovski injured, Joe Burns batting like Joe Bloggs and recalled Marcus Harris no certainty to play despite it all; perhaps leaving the task to Matthew Wade, who has never opened in first-class cricket.
On paper, on form, this won’t be like last summer. Smith’s input won’t be reduced in import, thanks to a firing Australian top-order. He should get his chance to bat, and bat, and bat.
For all the pain caused by Cape Town, two things have remained constant.
Steve Smith loves to bat. And Australia loves watching him bat; even more so when he is putting hapless rivals to the sword.
Especially with Kohli, a rare peer, headed home after one Test, Smith should get the opportunity to take centre stage.
When he did so against England, three years prior, he made 141 not out in Brisbane, 239 in Perth and an unbeaten 102 at the MCG, coupled with first-innings scores of 76 and 83 in Melbourne and Sydney.
It begins with the Adelaide Oval pink ball Test. Jasprit Bumrah and Ravi Ashwin will play spoiler. Smith will play his inimitable self and perhaps Australia will get the redemptive tour de force it craves – 12 months later than expected and two years on from an unprecedented defeat against India marked by his conspicuous absence.