YES, they booed him, but Steve Smith won back plenty of respect from the English cricket fans. Chief Writer RON REED reports from Edgbaston:
WELCOME back, Smudge – all is forgiven!
That was most certainly the sentiment in the large green and gold enclave at Edgbaston when Steve Smith – back from suspension – produced possibly the finest century of his outstanding career to get the Ashes battle off to a highly entertaining start.
But it wasn’t just the thousand or so Aussies, grouped around our easily recognisable spiritual leader, big Merv Hughes, who were saluting the former captain at the end of a great day’s cricket.
Smith won back the ungrudging respect of the locals, too.
At the outset everyone knew what to expect from the crowd – “Boo away, people,” exhorted the mass circulation Daily Mail newspaper, provocatively – with the English fans determined to extract all the sport they could from the lingering embarrassment of the sandpaper cheating scandal.
So Smith copped his share of the jeers, although not nearly as much as David Warner did when he walked off glumly after his early dismissal. As the mastermind of the cheating incident, it is probably Warner’s melancholy fate to be forever known as the real villain, whereas Smith was more the driver asleep at the wheel.
But I strongly suspect the jam-packed crowd’s behaviour was more theatre than genuine hostility. It might be wise to wait and see whether time tells a different story, but what I can say for certain is that in the interminable queue for buses back to town after stumps, and in the couple of pubs we visited, anyone wearing clothing identifying them as Australian was quickly approached by friendly locals and complimented on the tourists’ gutsy fightback.
Cricket fans everywhere know class, courage and quality when they see it, especially when it’s in the context of a classic contest, and the English are certainly no exception – they did, after all, invent the game.
Without exception, the ones I spoke to were far more interested in applauding Smith’s performance than engaging in banal banter. They had no trouble understanding, or appreciating, that they had just enjoyed the privilege of watching one of the best cricketers of all time, possibly the best of the current generation.
Smith provided them with a masterclass that they will not quickly forget
Given the trouble Australia was in when he arrived at the crease, the quality of most of the bowling, the need to bat with the tailenders for a long period, that he was making a comeback to Test cricket after a substantial absence, the crowd’s attempts to unsettle him and, simply, the magnitude of the occasion – it doesn’t get any bigger than the start of an Ashes campaign – he was superb once he survived a few air shots and one of several wrong umpiring decisions.
In the last session, as he turned the tide in Australia’s favour with the help of bowlers Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon, he psychologically defeated England captain Joe Root, who gave up all attempts to dismiss him and put every fieldsman on the boundary in a vain attempt to keep him off strike.Embed from Getty Images
It was disgracefully negative captaincy. As good as Smith is, and as well-set as he was, no batsman is ever impossible to dismiss – unless perhaps no-one is trying to dismiss him, and so Root got exactly what he deserved, namely a significantly larger target to chase.
A second animated contest played out all day in the grandstands, as the Poms baited the Aussies – “They’ve all gone quiet over there,” they sang to us as the wickets crashed in the middle session – and plenty of our number gave as good as we got as Smith and his unlikely assistants eventually provided some live ammunition. So, one day down, possibly 24 to go – and on and off the field, this is, happily, threatening to become a series to remember.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.