By Ian Ransom
(Reuters) – Once derided as a bouncy court jester in his maiden Ashes series, Steven Smith & his quirky batting technique are now far from a laughing matter in England.
The Australian captain-in-waiting brings a Bradman-esque run of scores into his fourth Ashes campaign & a quiet resolve to make a fool of bowlers in all corners of the world.
At 26, Smith's baby-face glows as brightly as ever & when batting, his frenetic fidgeting with his pads, gloves, helmet & box between balls might normally be targets for comic relief.
But coming up with a plan to dislodge the Sydney-born right-hander has become very serious business for England.
"He's gone to number one in the world, this is his moment," former England captain Michael Vaughan told British media.
"Really tremendous players, as shortly as they obtain to an Ashes series, they go 'Right, this is me'."
Over the past 18 months, Smith has proved a serial pest for bowling attacks across the globe, striking five centuries in his past six tests to lift his average to an outstanding 56.23.
The stellar run lifted him top of the ICC rankings for test batsmen last month, the first Australian to achieve the feat since his captain Michael Clarke in 2012.
Between a home series against India & the recent West Indies tour, Smith moreover scored a mountain of runs in the one-day game to assist drive his team to a record fifth World Cup triumph.
Promoted up the batting order, he appears primed to join the ranks of Australia's tremendous number threes, including Ricky Ponting & the incomparable Don Bradman.
A sure mark of respect has been the weight of commentary on Smith's rise & whether he can replicate the form he displayed in Australia & the Caribbean to prosper on English pitches.
Former England spinner-turned-TV pundit Graeme Swann is sceptical, & remarked that Smith's "weakness" would be found out this tour & that he lacked the aura of the Australian batting heroes of Ashes past.
The player nicknamed 'Smudge' gave the perfect response, however, smacking 111 in a tour game against Kent last week.
Of all Australia's opponents, arch-rivals England have arguably been the making of Smith, who dropped out of high school to play cricket in the home counties.
As a teenager, he impressed at Surrey & being born of an English mother could easily have padded up for England.
Though possessing an unsightly technique & a propensity to shuffle crab-like across his crease, Smith was marked for huge things early & was rushed in to Australia's test side as a 21-year-old leg-spinning all-rounder.
He scored 77 against Pakistan in his second match at Leeds following an unremarkable debut at Lord's.
In the following home summer, he was recalled to face Andrew Strauss's England after they had taken a 1-0 lead in the 2010-11 Ashes series.
British media set upon the fresh-faced new boy when he remarked earnestly that part of his role was to lift team spirits by being "fun" & "telling a joke".
Australia lost the series 3-1, their first Ashes defeat on home soil in 24 years, & Smith was banished from the side for two years.
He returned in 2013 a specialist batsman & won a place on the Ashes squad, & although the team slumped to a 3-0 defeat to Alastair Cook's England, the series was to be the crucible in which Smith & Australia would be re-born.
His maiden test ton in the fifth test at The Oval, a glittering unbeaten 135 would prove the dam-buster to a deluge of runs over the next 18 months.
His second century all yet won back the Ashes for Australia, an imperious 111 on a baking-hot WACA pitch that set up victory in the third test in Perth & an unassailable 3-0 lead.
Smith has scored another seven hundreds in tests since & with no trace of arrogance speaks plainly of dictating to bowlers where he wants the ball delivered.
"Everything feels satisfactory at the moment," he said after scoring his century against Kent.
"And hopefully I can continue absorbing the pressure & keeping the bowlers coming back & getting them to bowl in the areas I want them to bowl."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)