About halfway through the afternoon session on day three, England’s ninth-wicket stand tilted from the vaguely irritating to the deeply frustrating phase for Australia. The interactive scoreboard had just flashed up a 50, the partnership neatly compiled between Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad, before the television cameras quickly panned to Steve Smith.
A reaction from the captain, then, to see what he would do in this tricky situation. Only Steve Smith is not captain. This was not a momentary memory lapse from the camera gantry, forgiven for focusing on a man who has captained Australia on 34 occasions. Because this had been happening all afternoon. Any time a run was scored, instead of seeking a response from Tim Paine, Australia’s captain for the past 18 months, it was to Smith we turned.
There was merit to this movement, to an extent. On a number of occasions Smith was to be seen directing fielders, chatting with Paine, simply looking authoritative. To the cynical eye this was easy pickings. He was dubbed the “field setter”, captain in everything but name, “like a conductor at the Proms”, clamoured social media. Parallels were even drawn to the shadow of India’s former captain, MS Dhoni, continuing to hover over Virat Kohli’s left shoulder. There was amusement to be had.
But the speculation ventured beyond the witty take. It had, after all, been very much an official statement, issued by Cricket Australia in formal tones in March 2018, which stated that Smith would “not be considered for team leadership positions until a minimum of 12 months after the conclusion” of his ball-tampering suspension. A Smith captaincy, therefore, could not occur until March 2020. Only what is a team leadership position? Were we seeing one unfold at Edgbaston?
Of course not. Anything beyond the assumption that Smith was doing what Smith knows best, picking up where he had left off, is conspiracy speculation at its best. He is scoring runs and helping set fields, it’s hardly surprising. Smith even said this in so many words after his 144 on day one.
“I obviously don’t have the armband, and that’s OK,” reflected Smith, responding to whether he felt like a leader in that innings. “I’m obviously an experienced player now and an experienced player in the dressing room. And you want your experienced players to stand up when it is difficult and to show the way. Fortunately I was able to do that today.”
Predictably, however, his efforts were labelled a “captain’s innings”, and the presumption is that as soon as he can captain again, he will. Australia, historically, pick a team first and then the captain. They are not now; Paine averages less than 20 this calendar year and his keeping errors have stood out. This is not a man who, come March 2020, is likely to have his name inked on to that teamsheet. Only Smith and David Warner, as they were before the ball-tampering affair, are likely to warrant a decent wager. Travis Head, the incumbent vice-captain, is a possible candidate, but Smith remains the obvious one. The opinion pieces have already begun, calling on Cricket Australia to overturn its self-imposed leadership ban.
This, however tempting it may be, is misjudged. Call Thursday a captain’s knock if you must, and by all means point to Smith’s average of 70 as captain compared to eight fewer when not. But this is not a simple state of affairs; consider this instead to be stage three in the evolution of Steve Smith. He has advanced from Test player to captain and now, not without its turbulence, to elder statesman-cum-lynchpin of the side. In this role he will thrive.
The newspapers on day one led with “redemption” but this, if we take a step back, was an odd implication to make. How does hitting a red ball better than another amount to the action of saving or being saved from sin? If Smith had departed for a duck, would his ball-tampering stand as yet to be redeemed? Are Warner and Cameron Bancroft, with 25 runs in four innings between them, by extension living in sin?
Geoff Lemon, in his book Steve Smith’s Men, unpicks the assumption that your best player makes your best captain. Smith had God-given gifts to bat, not to lead men. This assumption transcends sport too, as one social-media user pointed out; law firms often promote their best practitioners to partner, in which they then have responsibility for managing people, irrespective of their empathy. It can be disastrous.
There were a series of decisions, taken by Smith, which culminated in the sandpaper affair. Much of this emanated from the pressures of captaincy. Australia’s current captain is without doubt grateful to see the return of Australia’s best batsman, but I wonder if Australia’s best batsman, when all is said and done, will find himself grateful to become Australia’s next captain.
• A version of this article was originally printed in The Telegraph on 4 August 2019.