'Unfinished business' fires Smith's Ashes ambition
A year on from his record-breaking Ashes campaign, Steve Smith says retaining the urn in a drawn series means a series win in England remains a major goal
5 August 2020, 05:47 PM AEST
Steve Smith admits he left last year's Ashes campaign in England, which he dominated like no other post-war batter, feeling "disappointed" because his team failed to win the series despite retaining the prized urn.
And it's the unfulfilled ambition of claiming victory on the arch-rival's home patch – which no Australia men's outfit has achieved since Steve Waugh's group in 2001 – which has Smith already eyeing the return bout, currently scheduled for 2023.
The 31-year-old has nominated a triumphant Ashes tour to England and a Test series win in India (where Australia are scheduled to tour in October 2022 under the current ICC calendar) as the "mountains" he hopes to scale before retirement.
He came close to realising the former last year when his double-century in the fourth Test at Old Trafford enabled Australia to retain the trophy, only to lose the final match at The Oval a week later where the series ended deadlocked 2-2.
Smith was awarded the Compton-Miller Medal as player of the series after scoring 774 runs at an average of 110.57 from four Tests played, an Ashes series aggregate in the UK surpassed only by Don Bradman (974 at 139.14 from five Tests in 1930) and Mark Taylor (839 at 83.9 from six in 1989).
However, having received the Medal and joined his teammates to lift a replica of the tiny terracotta urn at The Oval last September, Smith concedes he left the London venue that evening with conflicting emotions.
"To know that we'd got the Ashes back was pretty special," he told The Unplayable Podcast's Ashes Revisited special this week.
"Unfortunately, we couldn't win them which is something I'd still like to do.
"It just doesn't feel the same … you get to the end of the series and we're there holding up the Ashes but we'd just lost the last Test match, and we actually hadn't won anything.
"It was cool to get them back, but I was actually more disappointed that we hadn't won them."
Smith was a member of previous Australia Ashes touring parties that lost 0-3 in 2013, and then 2-3 two years later and acknowledges that last year's campaign proved the most successful Australia has mounted on British soil in almost two decades.
But he also holds a clear view on whether the 2019 sojourn can be deemed a successful mission given Tim Paine's team returned home in notional possession of the Ashes for the first time in five trips, or if it continues to burn within as 'unfinished business'.
"It depends who you ask," he said.
"From my personal perspective, I think it's unfinished business.
"It's great to retain the Ashes but it just doesn't sit right with me when you don't win it.
"We drew the series – good, but not great.
"So I probably left at the end of the fifth Test (feeling) more disappointed than a sense of achievement."
The final scoreline might have been different if Smith – who scored centuries in each innings of the opening Test at Edgbaston that Australia won by 251 runs – had not been felled by a blow to the neck from England fast bowler Jofra Archer during the second Test at Lord's.
The incident saw Smith retire hurt on 80 before he returned later in Australia's first innings to add 12 runs to his score.
He was then diagnosed with delayed concussion and ruled out for the remainder of the match, and was also forced to sit out the third Test at Headingley which England won by one wicket thanks to a remarkable unbeaten 135 from allrounder Ben Stokes, who added 76 for the final wicket with Jack Leach (one not out).
Smith revealed he had watched replays of the Lord's incident several times since the series concluded last year, and added he was finding it difficult to see the ball against the busy backdrop of the historic Lord's pavilion and in failing light during that rain-affected match.
"I've seen it a few times. It's not hard to watch," he said of the Archer blow.
"I remember it pretty vividly.
"It was a pretty difficult period of time batting, it was starting to get a bit dark from memory and I was actually struggling to pick the ball up a bit from that end.
"It's probably one of the most unique places in the world to bat, there's a bit going on behind the (bowler's) arm with all the members sitting there and the windows of the pavilion.
"There's a few distractions there, so it was difficult but it was a good spell of bowling on that wicket, at that stage.
"I've looked back at the knock a few times, and I just count myself lucky at times to have been able to get up from it and to only have a concussion."
When Smith returned to action, for the fourth Test at Old Trafford, he effectively decided the Ashes' fate by scoring 211 in more than eight and a half hours at the crease in a match where the next-highest individual score was 82.
The fact that contribution also came from Smith, in Australia's second innings to set up their 185-run victory, underscored his dominance.
He listed his double-century among his all-time favourite Test knocks, along with his twin tons at Edgbaston a few weeks earlier and his second innings century on a diabolical pitch at Pune that set up Australia's rare away victory against India in 2017.
That was the first Test of Australia's most recent visit to the subcontinent, and the tourists' failure to win another match on that fractious tour means success in India sits alongside Ashes glory in the UK as Smith's burning ambition.
"They're the two big mountains to climb and if you can do that, it would be pretty special," he said.
"Hopefully I get another crack at it, we'll see how we go.
"I'm getting a bit old now.
"You never know how long I've got left, and you never know what the future holds.
"But it's certainly something to strive for, that's for sure."
The Unplayable Podcast will be revisiting every Test of the 2019 Ashes with exclusive interviews and insights from the Australians at the centre of the action over the coming weeks. Subscribe now