'Once in a millennium player': Steve Smith defies boo boys with heroic Ashes knock

Redemption and recovery; Steve Smith single-handedly rescued Australia on Thursday by producing the Ashes knock of a lifetime on his Test return.

Walking out to the middle at Edgbaston, the former Australian captain was greeted by a chorus of boos, and sandpaper - a reference to the scandal which saw him banned for a year.

It was a 16-month absence in total, after he and fellow conspirators David Warner and Cameron Bancroft were sent home in disgrace from a tour of South Africa.

But by the time Smith arrived at the crease during the first innings of this Ashes series, he was truly walking out alone - Bancroft had just been dismissed, Warner was long gone and Australia were rocking at 17-2.

The Birmingham venue is said to be England’s fortress - barely a month ago they beat the same opponents at the same venue in the World Cup semi-final - and the raucous Hollies Stand wasted no time imposing themselves on the game.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01: England fans show off their yellow sandpaper during day one of the First Specsavers Ashes Test Match between England and Australia at Edgbaston on August 01, 2019 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
England fans made their feelings known as Steve Smith walked to the crease. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01: The Hollie's stand wave off David Warner with sandpaper after he was dismissed during day one of the First Specsavers Ashes Test Match between England and Australia at Edgbaston on August 01, 2019 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
A group of fans holding up sandpaper to the Australian team. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Booing Smith as he took each step, groups of fans had gathered with pieces of sandpaper which they flashed in the 30-year-old’s direction as he made his way to the middle.

The thought process was obvious; remind the inimitable batsman of his previous indiscretion, get in his head and ensure he joins the Australian collapse.

But they seemed to forget, perhaps willingly, the New South Welshman’s grit and determination to bat for as long as possible - even in the face of adversity.

After what was to come, renowned cricket commentator Daniel Norcross told Yahoo Sport UK Smith is a ‘once in a millennium’ player.

The man himself said in a post-match interview he had almost fallen out of love with the game - and doubted whether he would play again.

“I’m just really proud that I was able to help pull the team out of a bit of trouble,” Smith said. “There were times throughout the last 15 months where I didn’t know if I was ever going to play cricket again. I lost a bit of love for it at one point, particularly when I had my elbow operation [in January].

“I’m really grateful to be in this position now, playing for Australia again and doing what I love.”

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01: Australian players celebrate as Steve Smith of Australia reached his century during Day One of the 1st Specsavers Ashes Test between England and Australia at Edgbaston on August 01, 2019 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Australia's players celebrate Smith's ton, who bailed most of them out of jail. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Australia's Steve Smith celebrates reaching his century during day one of the Ashes Test match at Edgbaston, Birmingham. (Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)
Smith will hope his sensational knock at Edgbaston put to bed a nightmarish 16-month absence from the game. (Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)
Australia's Steven Smith runs his way to a century during day one of the first Ashes Test cricket match between England and Australia at Edgbaston in Birmingham, England, Thursday Aug. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
Home fans begrudgingly applauded as Smith celebrated his ton. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

His re-emergence revitalised Australia and a partnership with Travis Head proved the calming influence he could have, given half a chance.

Those two got their side to 99, before Head’s departure instigated a collapse of 5-23. At the other end, Smith was unperturbed.

By the time Pat Cummins departed, the final of the five, Smith was on 42.

Doing what he does best, he manoeuvred the ball around the field and dissected the England team with caution - only producing a false shot 11% of the time.

Alongside Peter Siddle, who produced a crucial knock of 44 himself, the lynchpin of the batting order brought up his 50.

It was met with more boos and more sandpaper. He continued.

By the time Siddle hit Moeen Ali straight to short leg, Smith had progressed to 85 and it seemed distinctly plausible that Nathan Lyon would soon follow and leave him stranded.

But when Australia’s talisman struck Ben Stokes through the covers for four to bring up his hundred, there was widespread applause as the begrudging respect seeped through.

Not that the show ended there; indeed, once Smith reached his milestone he exploded. 10 boundaries, including a six, as he hammered his way to 144.

When he came in, Australia were in all sorts of mess. By the time Stuart Broad castled him, it was an exhausted England who were questioning the state of play.

Australia's Steve Smith walks off the pitch after being dismissed during day one of the Ashes Test match at Edgbaston, Birmingham. (Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)
Steve Smith departs after Broad finally picks up his wicket. (Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)
Australia's Steve Smith celebrates his century during day one of the Ashes Test match at Edgbaston, Birmingham. (Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)
Australia's Steve Smith helped put on 162 runs for the final two wickets. (Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

‘Sandpaper gate’

It all stemmed from the visitors’ tour of South Africa in 2018, where a frenetic and charged atmosphere in the opening two matches contributed to events at Newlands.

With the series score level at 1-1, the hosts had put themselves into a strong position with a lead of 50 runs.

At about the 43rd over mark, the match umpires questioned Cameron Bancroft, where he denied using a foreign object to alter the ball.

Afterwards the player and Smith both claimed it was tape - before eventually confessing that Warner and Bancroft hatched the plan while Smith failed to intervene.

Fall from grace

The then-skipper refused to step down from his role, before Cricket Australia intervened following public outcry.

The trio were sent home in disgrace immediately following the conclusion of the Test, with Smith and Warner hit with bans.

Upon re-entry in Australia, Smith gave a press conference in which he broke down in tears, while Bancroft and Warner endured similar experiences.

‘Shocked and bitterly disappointed’

Then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull issued a statement which forced their cricket governing body into action.

"We all woke up this morning shocked and bitterly disappointed by the news from South Africa," Turnbull said. "It seemed completely beyond belief that the Australian cricket team had been involved in cheating.

"It's their responsibility to deal with it, but I have to say that (to) the whole nation, who holds those who wear the Baggy Green up on a pedestal, about as high as you can get in Australia … this is a shocking disappointment. It's wrong, and I look forward to Cricket Australia taking decisive action soon."

It was a chastening experience which shook Australian cricket - with a full review into their culture instigated, which subsequently saw Tim Paine named captained for Australia’s new-look era.

In this March 31, 2018 photo,  former Australian cricket vice captain David Warner cries as he talks to the media in Sydney, Saturday, March 31, 2018, after being sent home from South Africa following a ball tampering scandal. Warner and captain Steve Smith were banned for 12 months while young batsman Cameron Bancroft received 9 months after an investigation into the Australian cricket team's cheating scandal identified Warner as the instigator of the ball tampering plan that unraveled in South Africa. (AP Photo/Daniel Munoz, File)
Warner cries in his first press conference on arrival in Australia (AP Photo/Daniel Munoz, File)
TOPSHOT - Cricketer Steve Smith reacts at a press conference at the airport in Sydney on March 29, 2018, after returning from South Africa.  Distraught Australian cricketer Steve Smith on March 29 accepted full responsibility for a ball-tampering scandal that has shaken the sport, saying he was devastated by his "big mistake". / AFP PHOTO / Peter PARKS / -- IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE --        (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
Steven Smith was one of the conspirators in the Newlands cheating scandal (PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

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