London: Debutant Australian leg-spinning all-rounder Steven Smith has shown that he can handle the heat of playing top flight cricket.
At least that is what his father, Peter, and a lot of others in Australian cricketing circles think.
The first time Peter Smith thought his son, Steven, was destined to become more than just a handy cricketer came in a game between Sutherland and Blacktown played in 40C heat, when he was just nine-years-old.
“He bowled his 10 overs, fielded all day and then went out and batted and ended up scoring 93 not out to win the game,” Smith senior recalled.
“With the last seven overs to go, I think they needed about 40 runs. He was absolutely exhausted but at the end of each over, he kept saying, ‘How many do we need, how many do we need?’, and kept just pacing himself through, to the point where we won the match. People came to me at that time and said they hadn’t seen an under-10 do that sort of thing,” he added.
The 21-year-old makes his Test debut at Lord’s, the neutral venue for the series opener against Pakistan on Tuesday, and Peter Smith will be watching at the ground thanks to an invitation from Cricket Australia.
Peter’s status as a level-two cricket coach meant every session had a purpose. It was also through his father’s input that Smith would come into the match with proficient leg-spin to complement his batting, rather than wily seam bowling.
Smith senior says: “He was reasonably proficient at that - he could swing the ball both ways, was very accurate - but he was small,” he said. “All through his life he was smaller than the average for his age, so he was never going to be successful continuing as a quick, so we sat down with him when he was about 13 or 14 and thought it was time to change something.”
Peter soon handed over the coaching duties to the leaders at Sutherland, and Smith’s performances soared, to the point he was given his first-grade debut just a few months after his 16th birthday in what the club’s chairman of selectors Evan Atkins conceded was “a bit of a controversial decision”.
“I’ve been chairman of selectors for about six years and there’s been a couple of instances come up you always wrestle with ‘Is the kid too young?’. The thing about Steve was when he was that age and made his debut he looked like a 16-year-old, [whereas] you see some 16-year-olds playing footy or cricket and they look like they’re 18 or 19. Steve looked 16, and he wasn’t big,” Atkins said.
Sutherland president Steve Rixon, the former NSW coach and Test wicketkeeper, said Smith was initially regarded as “a batsman that bowled”.
“We pushed him through [the grades] and he did that with distinction and got better with … the ball,” Rixon said. “By the time he’s moved through to the top end [with NSW] it just happened to coincide with an era in which he’d just lost the world best leg-spinner - probably the world’s best two leg-spinners, with [Stuart] MacGill as well as Warney [Shane Warne]. Everyone was screaming that we needed another leg-spinner and here he was.
While Rixon said that Smith had “still got a long way to go” to become an outstanding leg-spinner, he predicted he would get there - and bat in the top six, too.
The latter is endorsed by Smith’s Shield record of last season, scoring 772 runs at 77.20 from limited opportunities, including four centuries.