It is a dozen years since Steve Smith, once Test cricket’s clown prince but now the nearest thing to The Don, first had England on the run.
During a summer in which he played for anyone offering him a game, Smith seduced Kent and Surrey with his British passport before leaving — like all great entertainers do — with them wanting more.
Smith, now 30, was here making use of his roots. His mother Gillian is English. Alan Butcher, then first-team coach at The Oval, had seen enough of him to venture to Sevenoaks where the Australian was lodging with a family friend, armed with a contract to remind him of his heritage and offer a future with England.
Those advances, like so many made towards him by Englishmen since that 2007 season, were rebuffed. If he’d signed on for Surrey or Kent he would have been throwing his lot in with England — but the Baggy Green was well and truly in his sights.
To be fair, as a quietly-spoken teenager, he had done plenty to encourage the chase.
Tim Bresnan, who went on to become an opponent in three Ashes series, first came across Smith, then 16, during his time in Sydney grade cricket with Sutherland.
‘About halfway through the season, this kid who had scored a load of runs in the B grade came in, bowled a bit of leg-spin, regularly made 60s and 70s, and even got a hundred,’ Bresnan tells Sportsmail.
‘At the end of the season he asked me whether he could get a gig in England. Whether I could fix him up at Yorkshire. I told him: ‘You’ve got a few first grade runs but slow down, big ‘un.’
‘I ended up giving him all my kit when I left and the next time I saw him he was slogging me everywhere at Lord’s in a one-day international.’
In his original incarnation as an international cricketer, Smith was asked to provide a bit of everything: some respectable if not bamboozling leg-spin, late order runs and a touch of light entertainment.
Lest it be forgotten, his mandate for a call-up midway through Australia’s doomed Ashes series of 2010-11 included telling a few jokes to lift morale. He told the media part of his role was ‘to be fun’. At that stage of his career, he was your archetypal Jack of all trades, master of none.
Out-bowled and out-gagged by Graeme Swann, his contributions with the bat were largely forgotten, in keeping with the Australian reaction to England’s 3-1 series win in general, and he was jettisoned for two years, having averaged 28.77 with the bat from five appearances. Incredibly, he hoisted it into the 60s by his 41st.
Twin hundreds in Birmingham last week took that mark to 62.96 — the closest to the peerless Sir Donald Bradman.
Back in 2007, following an initial recommendation by former Surrey player Nadeem Shahid, coach Alan Butcher trekked to the house of Tony Ward — best man at Smith’s parents’ wedding — to sign Smith the bowler. In the last days of June, he ran through Kent with six for 14 in a Second XI Trophy match.
By that stage, his opponents knew him well. Only a matter of weeks earlier, Paul Farbrace, then Kent’s academy and Second XI coach, gave Smith a game for a combined Kent/Middlesex team in a second XI game against Essex/Sussex at Chelmsford.
‘He got runs, fielded brilliantly, took an unbelievable diving catch at backward point and bowled some decent leg-spin,’ Farbrace recalls.
‘He later played another game for me but between the first and second I told him that I would like to offer him a contract. With his mum being English there were no problems with qualifications but he told me to speak to his dad Peter. His dad said: ‘No, he’s going to play for Australia’. He was spot on with his assessment, and it proved a pretty shrewd decision.’
Matthew Mott, who was about to be promoted to New South Wales head coach, was on an exchange programme at Canterbury, assisting Farbrace.
Farbrace adds: ‘At that stage, Matthew Mott was saying he was on their radar but not that far advanced. People were still uncertain as to whether he was a leg-spinner or a batter.
‘Kent still owe him about £75 in expenses which we never paid because I got the hump with him when he went to Surrey, who were offering him money. We couldn’t afford to pay someone who wasn’t going to sign for us. To be fair, I have seen him several times since and he doesn’t seem to be missing it.’
The 17-year-old Smith had travelled to England looking to play club cricket in Lancashire but sought comfort with family friends in the south-east after feeling homesick.
The day after his Kent/Middlesex bow alongside Eoin Morgan and Nick Compton, he hit 185 for Sevenoaks Vine Seconds to help chase down a target of 367. Some debut.
John Bowden, the club’s First XI captain in those days, takes up the story: ‘He was a pretty quiet lad, kept himself to himself, but he was obviously already well thought of in Sydney because when our overseas player Matt Wallis found out another Australian was possibly coming to play and that the Australian was Steve, his reaction was ‘I’ll go play in the twos, then.’
Even at that stage he had a reputation as a pretty decent player.
‘Out of principle we said that Matt would play the first two games and we would fit Steve in where we could. But we had a middle net the first week he was with us, on a pretty green wicket, and when he pumped the first ball he faced through mid-on it was obvious the guy could play a bit.
‘What made him stand out was when I was asked to play for the Duke of Norfolk’s XI against the Combined Services. Someone dropped out and I told them I would bring Steve to play. It was the first time I’d seen him bat on a really flat deck and he absolutely smashed it. The quality he has was very apparent that day.’
Smith hit 92 off 83 balls as his team chased down a target of 340 at seven runs per over.
Yet it was an off-the-field conversation that afternoon of June 15 that Bowden remembers most vividly.
‘We got talking about the county possibility. It was clear people wanted him to stay. I asked him what he wanted to do and he said: ‘Play for Australia’. I told him: ‘That answers your question then, really, doesn’t it?’.’
Bowden, an opening batsman, spent a lot of time in the middle with the Vine’s No 3 that summer. The rest of the team were taken by how much he would fidget before going into bat.
‘Quirkiness is in his DNA. That’s what he’s like,’ Bowden says fondly.
So are runs, evidently. As soon as he returned to Sydney, he received a rookie contract from New South Wales, where Graham Thorpe was the newly-appointed batting coach.
At that juncture, there was none of the Bradmanesque rotation method to his batting, whereby the bat points out to the gully region before coming down with vertical precision.
Glamorgan’s Charlie Hemphrey, who played against Smith in Kent league cricket that summer and roomed with him for the county’s second team, says: ‘He was a bit unorthodox, although not to the level he is now. He’s always had a really great eye and unbelievable balance at the crease.
‘He was quite a quiet lad. He had an inner belief, knew that he was pretty good, not in an arrogant way, what made him good and he has stuck pretty close to that, I reckon.
‘He used to stand quite still but he developed that back-foot movement across the crease that allowed him to play the quicker bowling quite well.
‘He grips the bottom of the bat handle really tight and a long way round which helps him open up the off-side and allows him to hit similar balls through the off-side or leg-side. A lot of normal people can’t do that.’
Smith’s secret to success has been a devotion to hitting hundreds of balls in the nets daily, a process that has helped him refine his art. It defies not only the coaching manuals but what was thought to be possible for a modern player’s numbers.
‘He literally does not care how he looks,’ says Trent Woodhill, one of his batting coaches when he was a kid. ‘It’s all about the contest each ball and that’s what separates him from the others. Steven enjoys batting, each ball is a gift whereas for others, the result is a gift or the score is a gift.’
Prior to his 12-month absence for his part in sandpapergate, Smith was out of the Australian Test team for 26 months between 2011-13 and credits Michael Di Venuto, then Australia’s batting coach, for helping him scale new heights from the 2013-14 Ashes onwards.
Bresnan witnessed the transformation from 22 yards away. ‘To start with he probably over-thought things but now he seems to have greater clarity on how his game needs to be for him to be successful.
‘He’s always had OCD. There has always been twitching to his game but he’s got himself figured out and turned himself into the best batsman in the world. That’s through hard work and determination and if you know Smithy you know all about his bloody-mindedness.’
So, as an England bowler with previous success against Smith, how would Bresnan be looking to dismiss him at Lord’s next week?
It draws a simple Yorkshire fast bowler’s response: ‘Top of off.’