At another time, the arrival of an Australian of such stock ahead of an Ashes summer might have had more fanfare. Press greeting him off the plane, photographers snapping him as he pushes a trolley through immigration, bleary-eyed in national team garb.
Instead, the 33-year-old arrived in the UK over the weekend with little fuss ahead of a three-game stint with Sussex. Australia are coming, but not just yet and certainly not all at the same time. Nevertheless, as Smith was officially unveiled in the Pavilion at Hove, decked in the club’s disarming baby blue-trimmed stash while the pigeons fed on the freshly laid seed on the outfield, the Ashes cogs finally began turning.
This will be his first taste of the County Championship. A previous dalliance in the shires came in 2010 via a short stint for Worcestershire in the T20 Blast. As it happens, they will be his first opponents before taking on Leicestershire and then Glamorgan, his only match at “home”.
Older and wiser, he is willing to make himself as useful as possible to a young squad slowly turning their fortunes around, with runs on the field and advice off it. Sussex head coach Paul Farbrace believes as much, going further to state the county and the domestic system as a whole will benefit from Smith’s time in the system. The latter carried particular emphasis.
Farbrace certainly does not subscribe to the view that giving a rival batter valuable preparation ahead of the Ashes is akin to professional treason. “I’ve got good friends who think that we’re helping Australia to win the Ashes,” he said with a smile “We’re not at all.”
Nor does he resent some of the talk that he, chief executive Rob Andrew and Sussex are hurting English cricket. That there is talk at all is only a good thing.
“Sport’s all about opinions,” said Farbrace. “That’s what we love about the game. I’ve got very strong views on Chelsea. The fact that people are talking about Championship cricket is only good for the game.”
It was down to Smith to respectfully cut through the noise. “I’ve seen a lot of talk about getting used to conditions,” he said. “But you’ve got to remember I’ve played a lot of cricket in England before. So conditions aren’t really new to me, if that makes sense.” It certainly does: a record of 16 Tests, six centuries and an average of 59.55 over here suggests he is overly familiar with these conditions.
Having chosen to skip the IPL by not entering the auction, Smith has spent the last few weeks resting in Australia. That downtime has meant plenty of time to keep across bold proclamations on the other side of the world.
Following Cricket Australia’s reposting of Stuart Broad’s quotes that he’d enjoy seeing Smith attempt to mimic England’s attacking style of play and “sky one to mid off early doors”, the England quick took to the comments section to make a clarification. “To be fair I love it any time we get him out, in any variety, cause he averages 60,” wrote Broad. Smith, thumbs idle, saw an opportunity and replied: “hopefully 65 by the end of the summer”.
“I mean, it was a little odd,” said Smith. “We were all there and playing so it was a little bit odd, you know? He’s a nice guy and loves throwing out some good banter so it’s all part of it.
“It certainly wasn’t ideal scenarios. But the whole world was going through it and we were in the middle of a pandemic, so we couldn’t really complain too much. We were actually out there being able to do what we love, so I don’t really have much more to add to it.”
No doubt there will be more talk to come. For now, Smith is gearing towards a return to competitive action, which began on Monday with a session with the 2nd XI before batting with the first team on Tuesday morning.
“Ollie bowled to me yesterday actually,” revealed Smith. “I left one third ball and he knocked me over. So that wasn’t ideal.
“But I was impressed with him actually when he was out in Australia. I thought he had some really good skills. He’s quite tall, he hit some good areas and looks like he’s got better since then. So I’m looking forward to playing with him this week.”
Smith stated it also allows him to run the rule over Robinson, which touches on an aspect lost in framing all this. Despite all Smith has achieved so far, this summer is one of huge opportunity
Becoming a World Test Champion carries a modern-day gravitas. The traditional pull of the Ashes is a little greater this time given it will be Smith’s fourth tour of England and he has yet to win one. Australia’s last victory on these shores came in 2001.
“This will be my fourth (Ashes) tour. Could this be my last? Potentially.”
They were close in 2019, losing the last Test at the Oval to draw two-all. Retaining the urn made not winning four years ago academic to a point, though Smith’s exploits in that series lifted him to legendary status.
He struck 774 runs at an average of 110.57 from just four matches after missing the Headingley Test after he was felled by a Jofra Archer bouncer at Lord’s. As much as that series was cathartic for Smith after returning from a year-long ban for his part in 2018’s sandpaper controversy, the result is something he is keen to rectify. Ideally, while posting similar numbers.
“It would be a huge one to tick off the bucket list, I suppose,” said Smith of the prospect of winning in England. “We haven’t been able to do it but we got close last time and were unable to get over the line. It’s certainly something that would be high up on my bucket list and everyone else in the team as well.”
“I’ve got a lot of fond memories from 2019 and the way I played and I’d love to replicate that and do something similar.”
All being well, Smith’s 100th cap will come in the third Test at Headingley. Fitting given it was on his first trip to England in 2013 that he struck the first of 30 centuries, the start of that transformation from awkward leg-spinner to peerless modern batting great. Could this be his final tour?
“This will be my fourth (Ashes) tour. Could this be my last? Potentially. I mean, I’m 34 in just under a month. I’m not sure I’ll be back. We’ll see.”
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo