(Australian Associated Press)
Mocked by England’s fans for crying last year, Steve Smith was close to tears of a different kind at Edgbaston during a knock that prompted Tim Paine to praise his predecessor as cricket’s “best ever”.
Smith, having served a year-long ban and been stripped of the captaincy for his role in the Cape Town cheating scandal, capped a dream Test comeback with man-of-the-match honours in the Ashes opener.
The former skipper’s digs of 144 and 142 rescued Australia in both innings, laying the platform for Nathan Lyon and Pat Cummins to secure a 251-run victory on Monday.
A day after legend Steve Waugh admitted he’d never seen “anything like” Smith and the Don Bradman comparisons came thick and fast, Paine went a step further in his post-match assessment.
“He’s the best player in the world in Test cricket at the moment. He’s probably the best ever statistically,” the captain said, singling out Smith’s mental toughness.
Chants of “we saw you cry on the telly, cry on the telly” echoed around Edgbaston throughout the five days, with a few sounding off even when Smith collected his award in the post-match ceremony.
Barbs about Smith breaking down at Sydney airport in the aftermath of the sandpaper scandal had little effect on the batsman, likewise boos, based on his clutch runs under immense pressure.
But the nature of the momentous occasion wasn’t lost on the 30-year-old, who opened up on Thursday about how he fell out of love with the game during his exile.
Smith celebrated both hundreds but the day-one century triggered particularly emotive scenes between him and good friend Nathan Lyon.
Smith, speaking on the BBC after Australia’s win, revealed what was running through his mind upon reaching three figures in Birmingham.
“Don’t burst into tears,” Smith said.
“I was close. I had to have a few deep breaths.
“It was really special. It was probably just as special as my first (Test) hundred I scored here (in England) back in 2013.
“It was a huge moment, almost a relief to get that first one out of the way, coming back in … it’s a pretty special week.”
Smith continued to play a straight bat to questions about his treatment from English crowds, which has been a recurring issue since he set foot in the country for the World Cup back in May.
“Obviously I’m copping a bit of stick out there but I’m not really playing much attention to that,” he said.
“Fortunately we’ve got a good Aussie contingent here. They’re trying to take on the Barmy Army, which is pretty tough I reckon.”
Paine suggested it was “scary” that Smith seemed to still be improving, also highlighting how the right-hander makes teammates walk taller and has been passing on plenty of pointers.
“They (Smith and David Warner) are not only helping me with the way they lead our group … we’re all tapping into them,” he said.
“They’ve still got a huge presence in our dressing room.”