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Just over three years ago, Michael Clarke made an impassioned plea on social media on behalf of Steve Smith.
“Trying to find a date for Steve Smith to take to the AB medal?” Clarke tweeted to more than 80,000 followers. “You can tweet me with your expressions of interest.”
That was late January 2011. Australia had just been chewed up and spat out by the monster that was England in the final two Ashes Tests in Melbourne and Sydney. Smith didn’t quite know it then, but he was about to be scalped and locked out of the Australian team for the next two years.
The shy and unassuming kid from the Sutherland Shire also didn’t quite know it then that he’d meet someone who would turn it all around.
Someone who would make his captain’s role as matchmaker redundant, and also set him on that path that will see Smith replace the injured Clarke as captain for the foreseeable future, starting with the second Test against India starting in Brisbane on Wednesday.
“We met three years ago at a bar during the first season of the Big Bash League,” says Smith of Dani Willis, a law and commerce student at Macquarie University. “She has been amazing. She’s always there for me when I’m around. She always gives me good advice, and tells me the truth. It’s nice that you have some honest feedback to come home to all the time. She’s been terrific for me over the last few years.
“I try to occasionally learn some law lingo. A few words here and there, which is always interesting. Most of it goes over my head. I’m not quite smart enough for that. But I try my best.”
It’s a common theme emerging in modern sport, with apologies to Cat Stevens: find a girl, settle down, if you want you can marry … go on and win a footy premiership or cement your place in the Australian Test team. Clarke broke it off with Lara Bingle, found Kyly Boldy, won the Ashes. Dave Warner found Candice Falzon and just notched 1000 runs for the year.
Love used to be a battlefield. Now it seems as fundamental to sporting longevity as an ice bath.
Ask Smith if his partner has provided much needed balance in his life and he says this: “She has. It’s nice to have someone to come home to and get the honest truth about all aspects of life.”
“Occasionally,” he admits. “She watches everything: all the press conferences. She always tells if I’ve done something wrong – and if I’ve done something well. It’s nice.”
For someone admittedly addicted to the game, balance is the reason behind Smith’s renaissance as a cricketer and elevation to the captaincy ahead of veteran Brad Haddin.
Four years ago, Smith was part of the Australian side playing in the Twenty20 World Cup in the Caribbean.
The team was based at a luxurious resort in Barbados, and on a day off the likes of Warner and others could be found on jetskis out in the turquoise ocean, or lazing beside the large pool.
Not Smith. He was in his hotel room, watching every ball being played elsewhere in the tournament.
“I’m a cricket nuffie,” he admitted to the small band of Australian reporters on that tour.
He says now: “I would call myself a cricket nuffie. I love watching cricket. But I’ve found other things in my life.”
Nevertheless, the next captain of the Australian cricket team seemingly doesn’t covet the glossy magazine and red-carpet lifestyle that Clarke has been often unfairly criticised for. You’ll see the 25-year-old in the general admission area at Royal Randwick on raceday, wearing a pair of thongs and a form guide in his back pocket.
He owns a share in four racehorses – three with leading trainer Chris Waller and another with old-school horseman Les Bridge – and calls it a “hobby”.
If he’s not there, you might see him at the Clovelly Hotel in Sydney’s eastern suburbs having a chicken schnitzel and quiet schooner – even if beer conflicts with the high-fat, low-carb diet that sees him as lean as a greyhound these days. “There are a lot of carbs in beer,” he grins. “When I’ve been doing the diet, I’ve had my alcohol consumption pretty low. I’m not a huge drinker.”
By his own admission, Smith wasn’t ready to become Australian cricket’s next big thing. As a leg-spinner taking private lessons from Shane Warne who could also bat, he found himself in the Test, one-day and Twenty20 sides at 21.
“I started too soon,” he says. “As a batsman [in Test cricket], I played too many shots. I didn’t have the patience. I just tried to score a hundred off 50 balls. So I got the opportunity to play state cricket [for NSW]. Try to get some big scores and bat time. That was the best thing for me at that stage.”
He now belongs in the Test side as much as any player, but is he ready to lead? At 25, some have doubts. Others say he’s the right man for the job.
During a match as captain of the Sydney Sixers in their first season, he once put veteran Stuart MacGill firmly back in his box.
MacGill had taken exception to Smith asking him to field at fine leg.
“MacGill said he was sore and he was there to bowl,” former Sixers boss and Test quick Stuart Clark told The Australian this week. “Smithy said, ‘Look mate, I am the captain, you do what I say, now f— off and get down there’.”
Smith barely recalls the incident, but he will offer this: “I’m not afraid to do that. It comes with the job, and everyone understands that. I think he [MacGill] was a little surprised at first. But then he went to the position I had said.”
Now, though, comes a more onerous task: captaining a Test side still jangling with emotion since the death of teammate Phillip Hughes. Smith was in the stands at the SCG that afternoon late last month when Hughes was struck by a bouncer that claimed his life. He wasn’t playing for NSW because of a quad injury.
As he sat on 98 during the first innings of the Adelaide Test, waiting for a long rain delay to end, he looked at the big “408” painted on the outfield.
“I thought if I got two more runs, I thought it would be a nice tribute for my little mate to go over to the 408,” Smith says.
And then he did. Sometimes cricket and life are one and the same.