Australian Cricket Awards
Super Steve Smith claims third Allan Border Medal
Australia's batting genius scored more runs than any of his compatriots throughout the 2020-21 voting period, finding his hands and rediscovering himself along the way
6 February 2021, 07:27 PM AEST
Somewhere along the way, throughout a unique 2020, Steve Smith misplaced his hands. It might've happened in the UK, when he was concussed and forced to sit out matches against England for the second year running. Perhaps he was thrown by the shift of venues for the Indian Premier League, and they disappeared in the UAE.
Wherever they were, their absence was making him anxious.
Steve Smith all formats (Jan 9, 2020 – Jan 19, 2021)
M: 23 | Inns: 26 | Runs: 1,098 | Ave: 45.75 | SR: 83.81 | 100s: 4 | 50s: 4 | HS: 131
In the end – and wouldn't you know it – they turned up at home. Always the last place you look. As with most things Smith, the timing was impeccable. India were in Sydney for the first two ODIs of a three-match series, and Smith, now armed with the regulation set of mitts, was telling anyone who would listen of his discovery.
"The past few days I have found something ... I have found my hands which I am extremely excited about," he revealed in the lead-up to the series opener.
"It's taken me about three-and-a-half or four months ... I had a big smile on my face after training, I walked past (assistant coach) Andrew McDonald and said, 'I've found them again'.
"Theoretically it is a simple thing, but it is just getting that feel and the look of the bat behind my toe the right way and the way my hands come up on the bat. It changes where you meet the ball to hit the ball in certain places. Just slight things, and bits of rhythm aren't quite right."
They say every genius is slightly mad and Smith's ramblings do little to dissuade the theory. But it's hardly surprising that he is unable to adequately convey to the masses what makes sense to him as a batsman; if that was the case, we might all be averaging 61.80 in Test cricket.
As it transpired, Smith's excitement was warranted. As strange as it might have seemed to the rest of us, the finding of his hands was truly revelatory, and in the three days that followed, he hit two 62-ball hundreds, each the star hand in convincing Australian victories.
Perhaps we're guilty of having become blasé about Smith's batting over the years; this is his third Allan Border Medal, after all, after he also won the award for Australia's best male cricketer in 2018 and 2015.
The 31-year-old scored more runs for Australia than anyone else during the judging period (Jan 9, 2020 – Jan 19, 2021), his tally across the three formats reading: 26 innings, 4x100s, 4x50s, 1,098 runs at 45.75.
In December, he also picked up the ICC accolade of Test Player of the Decade.
But these two one-day innings were something new, a spectacular reminder that the man who spends more time in the nets than anyone isn't simply doing it for show – he's driven to improve, to evolve, to stay ahead of the pack.
Plenty of the gallery of former players in the commentary box during those two innings surmised it was as well as they had seen Smith hit the white ball, particularly his calculated assault in the second match, where every shot appeared to end up where he had intended.
No Australian before or since has hit two ODI hundreds in fewer than 70 balls in their entire careers. That Smith chose to do it in three days was typical of a man who does things his own way out in the middle.
Those innings at the top of the summer made it a calendar year hot streak against India of 98, 131, 105, 104 and emphatically set the scene for Smith to transfer his form into the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, a series in which he had piled on seven hundreds in his previous eight Tests.
So it was a surprise to all – Smith included – when after two Tests, his series tally sat at 10 runs from four innings.
The man who had found his hands had suddenly lost his way.
Smith scratched and fiddled his way to one from 29 balls in Adelaide, then made an eight-ball duck and eight from 30 in Melbourne. The previous summer he had been bogged down by New Zealand's effective short-ball tactics, but this was different again in that his issue seemed to be around a lack of decisiveness in both footwork and shot selection.
Smith had gone eight Tests without a hundred (his longest streak since his reinvention at the WACA Ground mid-Ashes 2013-14) when he arrived at the warmly familiar Sydney Cricket Ground for the New Year's Test, and almost from the moment his innings began it was clear there had been a conscious shift in approach. Gone was any reticence and in its place was the assured mover we have come to recognise. Even the pre-delivery routine – the bat taps, the crouch, the laser focusing of the eyes, the shuffle across – it seemed all of it was being performed with greater intent.
Smith hit three boundaries in his first 11 balls to more than double his series runs tally, the second an on-drive from a fuller Navdeep Saini delivery just outside off stump that rattled along the grass to the rope.
It was an ominous sign and, with all the recognisable warning bells going off, a century quickly appeared the most logical outcome. If there's an absurdity in that – that a batsman's fate is three figures when he has just moved into double figures – then blame Smith. Few players have ever been so obviously 'on' as this swashbuckling right-hander, whose range of shots is exceeded perhaps only by his powers of concentration.
As it unfolded, Smith moved to his 27th Test hundred midway through day two. Despite his comparatively lean run, only Bradman has reached that mark in fewer innings.
At stumps that day, he spoke of his conscious decision to be more aggressive, then addressed the criticism he had received after missing out in the opening two Tests.
"Plenty of people said I was out of form," he said. "So it was nice to come back into form, if that's what you want to call it.
"It was only about three of four weeks ago I scored two hundreds at the SCG, so it makes me laugh sometimes when people say that kind of thing."
Thirty-nine days between hundreds, to be exact. Time enough for the headline writers to have him found, then lost, then found again.
Smith, on the other hand, insists he was there all along.
Who are we to question Australian cricket's mad genius?
2021 Allan Border Medal top 10
Steve Smith 126 votes
Pat Cummins 114
Aaron Finch 97
Josh Hazlewood 91
Marnus Labuschagne 84
Adam Zampa 77
Ashton Agar 59
David Warner 56
Mitchell Starc 54
Glenn Maxwell 52