Wisdom, not wounds from SL tour: Smith | cricketnetwork.com

Wisdom, not wounds from SL tour: Smith

15 February 2017

Harsh lessons learned from last year's surprise hiding holding Aussies in good stead

Steve Smith has learned much since he landed in Sri Lanka seven months ago, piloting what was then the world's top-ranked Test outfit and pledging "no excuses" should his inaugural Asian campaign as skipper suffer a hiccup.

He knows there is a substantive difference between feeling adequately prepared, and genuinely being equipped to meet the region's myriad and idiosyncratic challenges.

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He understands that sheer force of will and meeting his lofty individual key performance indicators won't bring the requisite results unless he has a majority of teammates willing and able to meet those same standards.

And above all, he comprehends that the game that has been his life since he quit secondary school early to pursue it follows an altogether different pace and rhythm in its new financial, political and fanatical heartland.

In the five weeks that elapsed between Smith fronting an arrival media conference at the outset of last year's Sri Lanka sojourn and his early return home with a 0-3 Test scoreline and a tumble from atop the rankings staring back at him, Smith changed markedly.

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The excited, almost boyish confidence he carried into that press event at Sri Lanka Cricket headquarters in Colombo had become enveloped by a cloud of confusion and helplessness that became ever more impenetrable with each day of compounding failure.

While nobody was so imprudent to say it aloud, the three-Test series against a weakened Sri Lanka ranked seventh in the world was implicitly viewed as timely preparation for the more daunting, more consuming India assignment that loomed large the following year.

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So it was against the backdrop of that disastrously winless campaign, one that bled into the watershed South Africa Test series at home that saw Smith's team radically re-engineered, that the marginally older, much wiser skipper fronted another pre-series media event yesterday.

Once again sat alongside coach, Darren Lehmann.

This time in the verdant, historic surrounds of Brabourne Stadium, home of the Cricket Club of India which its esteemed members and devoted suporters like to describe as 'the Lord's of India'.

Where Smith declined, under polite questioning, to expand much on the task that awaits other than to underscore its challenges, its vagaries and the weight of history that his team surely labours beneath even before a coin is tossed or a ball is bowled.

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Rather, he focused on the preparedness of the current iteration of his Test team – which at bare minimum will be missing Joe Burns, Adam Voges and Peter Nevill from that which took the field at Pallekele last July – to work hard and often at getting better.

He noted there are subtle technical tweaks that bowlers and batters need to make when playing Test cricket in subcontinental conditions, but also acknowledged that trying too hard to so quickly become experts in such alien surrounds can prove dangerously counter-productive.

Sometimes you just have to let the pitch do the work for you, Smith conceded.

But perhaps most significantly, the 27-year-old whose record of 11 wins from his first 20 Tests in charge is only marginally inferior to Don Bradman's (12 victories) and better than Ian Chappell and Richie Benaud (10) at the same time of their captaincy careers, recognises he can't drive the game through every turn.

That sometimes there are periods, especially in Asia where matches and even entire series can be surrendered in the space of a few hours of inattention or over-reaching, when overs and hours must be absorbed rather than seized.

Which for someone who feels uncomfortable surrendering control is quite the epiphany.

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"For me it's about understanding the different times of the game," Smith said when asked what lessons he had taken out of the confronting Sri Lanka loss.

"There are times in the game where you can attack a lot more and times when you need to defend a little bit, and just let the game take its course for a little while.

"Try and keep things quite tight, but when you get a sniff really go for it.

"I think that's an important aspect of the captaincy here in India.

"It's about knowing the right periods and timing the periods right, when to take the foot off the pedal and when to go really hard as well.

"I think I learned a little bit about that in Sri Lanka."

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Smith's Sri Lanka experience has not so much left him with deep wounds but a deeper wisdom.

Having witnessed from uncomfortably close proximity just how quickly and unexpectedly a seemingly straightforward task can spin out of control, his appreciation for those who have engineered success is enhanced.

Even if history shows that as far as Australian Test cricket teams travelling to India go, that level of mastery has been achieved but once since the dawn of the 1970s – by acting captain Adam Gilchrist in his team's 2-1 triumph of 2004.

But from the turmoil that engulfed those above and below Smith at the nadir of last summer in Hobart, an optimism and a palpable sense of excitement has emerged in the man whose captaincy experience is almost identical to his India rival on this Qantas Tour of India, Virat Kohli.

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Both have been elevated to national leadership before turning 30, they have entrenched themselves as the pre-eminent batters in their team immediately upon earning that honour, and seem destined for lengthy tenures in an historically precarious job.

And while Smith knows better – certainly after his Sri Lanka experience – than to be caught out coveting the destination before the journey is begun, he does come armed with a sense of historical context.

A message he has quietly conveyed to his unfancied team on more than a few occasions of late, and one that he shared with the media at his latest pre-series public briefing.

"This team's come a long way," he said in Mumbai yesterday. "We're learning a lot, we're willing to put in the hard work to try and get the best out of ourselves and the best out of the team.

"It's a great challenge to win here in India.

"But we know that if we can pull something off and win a series here, we'll look back in 10 or 20 years and it will be some of the best times of our lives."

About the Writer


Andrew Ramsey is the senior writer for cricket.com.au. He previously wrote for the Guardian, The Australian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Hindu and Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and the author of The Wrong Line.