For so long, Steve Smith was the poster boy of Australian cricket.
A brilliant batsman, a formidable Test captain and a lovable, smiling character who had endeared himself to cricket fans far wide across the globe.
So, when Steve Smith was harshly yet rightfully charged for his role in the infamous sandpapergate incident during the tour of South Africa in March, 2018, the long-held clean skin opinion of Smith took a dramatic fall to pariah depths in a blink of an eye.
Having been condemned to cricket’s abyss for 12 months and stripped of his captaincy, media and fans alike descended on the once golden child of Australian cricket.
Public shaming ensued and the vultures descended, looking for whatever blood they could purge.
Snaps of a dejected and lonely Smith at a New York bar made front-page news across the nation while his family continued to be doorstopped by reporters.
To say he lived through continuous humiliation would be an understatement.
During his ban, the emotional turmoil and toll caused the batsman to lose love for the game, and Smith was publicly open about his fear of being banned for life.
However, when Smith’s ban from international cricket expired, the tabloids suggested an immediate return would lead to disharmony in the dressing room and lead to a divided playing group.
Could Smith, an Alpha dog himself, heel to the leadership of newly-minted Test captain Tim Paine who had taken on the role during Smith’s ban?
There were more questions than answers, but the reality was that there was little hesitation, if any, from Cricket Australia that Smith wouldn’t be welcomed back with open arms despite the events that took place in Cape Town.
If anything, the narrative in the lead-up to the Ashes in England would drive Smith to what we now know as one of best and bravest knocks in modern-day Test cricket, restoring the once golden-boy’s reputation in one extravagant flourish of the willow.
As Smith walked to the crease on day one of the Ashes, the boos bellowed and echoed around the 136-year old Edgbaston Stadium and it was evident on day one of the first Test there would be no insult spared from the English crowd who made every effort to create a hostile environment for Smith upon his return to Test cricket.
The booing and jeering of Smith only underlined the threat that the crowd realised he posed to the English side winning the Ashes.
The Australians were losing wickets at an alarming rate.
Stuart Broad was sending Australian batsman packing at will and Smith, for all his effort, was running out of batting partners.
The Australian’s were 3-35, and soon they found themselves in serious trouble.
If the Aussie’s were taking on water, then it was Smith who was calmly bucketing it out.
Smith was simply unstoppable. Skill, grit, determination… it was desperate stuff, but the English taunts continued with every run Smith put away as the rescue job was underway after a less than desirable start.
The boos only seemed to spur on a defiant Smith who was sending Australian fans into raptures at the ground and back home in the wee hours of the morning, as he provided the glimmer of hope the Aussie’s needed.
Smith’s dominance was becoming so profound that at one point England skipper Joe Root put all nine of his outfielders on the boundary to try and stop the rapid rate of runs Smith was scoring after he passed 100 which drew its own humiliation and criticism from the English.
As Australia limped to 8-122, and as Smith was looking around for partners, it was Peter Siddle who stood by his former Test captain as the pair would combine for 88 runs, and, ultimately, see Smith’s return to Test ranks capped with his 24th century.
As Smith brought up his 100, it was hard to fathom the circumstances, yet so simple to understand.
Smith, a hard-working, batting machine with an idiosyncratic approach that is unlike any other when it comes to occupying the crease, had managed to bring up a Test 100 on his return to Test cricket all while salvaging the first innings.
On the balcony, the Australians celebrated as an emotional Smith raised the bat in what is possibly his most memorable knock and a Test innings that’ll go down in cricket folklore.
The boos subsided briefly but returned soon after, although not even the opinion of a crowd taking the moral-high ground could disregard the sheer brilliance and determination of a knock such as they had just witnessed.
As Siddle departed, No.11 Nathan Lyon did enough to hold firm and frustrate the English bowlers as Smith raged towards 150 before he ultimately fell to Broad much to the relief of the English after a gallant and incredible 144-run effort.
As he walked from the ground, his head held high, Australian fans stood proudly and clapped.
Even the English couldn’t believe what they had witnessed and they too slowly began to stand and somewhat hesitantly clap in sheer astonishment at what had unfolded.
The English papers were sent into a fearsome frenzy. ‘Should’ve been banned for life’ was the theme that the English press and fans cried.
But if the first innings felt like a daydream, the second one would become a fairy tale.
The English intended to get under the skin of Smith as the Australians stepped out to bat again, however it was to no effect.
The English bowlers had spent so many petrol tickets in an attempt to dismiss Smith in the first innings that, by the second innings, it wasn’t the tail Smith was having to rely on to accompany him on his merry run, but instead former gloveman Matthew Wade and captain Tim Paine who continued to stack up the runs in partnership with Smith in what was becoming a living nightmare for the English.
For all of Smith’s brilliance and consistency over the years, he had never once recorded two centuries in both innings in any format of the game in his career.
But the script was so perfectly written that he’d tick that feat off in his remarkable return from a 16-month absence.
Instead of the raw emotion and relief that poured out when Smith chalked up century, No. 24 was, century No. 25 was one of pure joy.
Smith had contributed an enormous 286 runs to the first Test – he was unstoppable.
It was the ultimate result for both Australian cricket and Smith.
The former entrenched its standing in world cricket, and the latter clawed back the respect and love from the Australian public and his teammates.
Despite not holding the title of captain, he was indeed the backbone of Australia’s push and ultimate success in retaining the urn, and it all began with back-to-back hundreds at Edgbaston.
Smith would finish the drawn Ashes series with a Sir Don Bradman-like total of 774 runs at 110.57 from four Tests; an extraordinary figure.
It catapulted him to the fourth-highest run tally in Ashes history behind Bradman, Wally Hammond, and Mark Taylor.
Fittingly named Player of the Series, Smith’s 2019 Ashes series will long be spoken about as one of the most incredible and iconic individual performances in modern cricket.