Four days ago, Steve Smith posted a short stump vision video of him have a knock indoors in Brisbane. Nothing too fancy, no background music, just a basic caption "Getting some good prep in" with Smith being his usual quirky self—fidgeting, walking across the stumps, leaving the ball, defending with a firm front-foot defence, playing cover drives before being comprehensively beaten, and then back to driving, punching and dabbing.
Closely watching it all, while doubling up as Smith's throwdown man, was Marnus Labuschagne.
If there is one redemptive image of Australian cricket in the last two years, it is of Smith and Labuschagne absolutely geeking out on batting and everything related to it. There are stories of Labuschagne following Smith wide-eyed, of a rumoured deal involving Labuschagne scrubbing Smith's gear every Test for a couple of bats and, of course, Labuschagne imitating Smith's bizzare leaves almost frame-by-frame is for all to see.
Nothing, however, consolidates their bond better than the runs it generated for Australia since Jofra Archer's bouncer at Lord's expedited Labuschagne's comeback. Since they started batting together in the Manchester Test, Smith and Labuschagne have aggregated 2,425 runs—just over 40%—of the 6,002 runs Australia have scored. Runs haven't translated into runaway success though. The 2019 Ashes, despite Smith's Bradmanesque feat of piling up 774 runs, didn't yield a series victory (though the Ashes was retained after a 2-2 draw). Neither did the home series against India (Labuschagne and Smith were the top scorers with 426 runs and 313 respectively) after Australia cantered to victories against New Zealand and Pakistan.
England have lost nine of their last 10 Tests in Australia but the hosts look more tentative, what with Pat Cummins chosen the new captain in extenuating circumstances. It also remains to be seen if David Warner can exorcise the ghosts of the last Ashes where he scored 2,8,3,5,61,0,0,0,5 and 11. The rest of the batting doesn't inspire much confidence on paper. Alex Carey will make his Test debut as Tim Paine's replacement. Opener Marcus Harris hasn't scored a fifty since January, 2019. Travis Head's last century—as well as fifty—came in December, 2019. Cameron Green, a talented all-rounder who scored 84 against India in the drawn Sydney Test, is still largely untested. Australia will thus lean heavily on Smith and Labuschagne again in a marquee series. They won't mind the focus one bit though.
Right now, Labuschagne is one of the most fascinating exhibits of modern-day batting. Having imbibed the idiosyncrasies of Smith—not just leaving deliveries but how he loads up for punches and cover drives as well—Labuschagne went on to display an almost impregnable batting range till India laid the leg-side trap for him early this year. But his statistics—five centuries and six fifties in 1,462 runs scored at an average of 73 in 11 Tests—flaunt his talent. He is still only 27.
In many ways, Smith is possibly the best thing to have happened to Labuschagne and Australia in the 2019 Ashes series. If there is one thing the cricket world doesn't require reminding is how much of a modern batting colossus Smith is, surviving a career-threatening scandal that led to a one-year ban to reclaim his position and aura. Archer's bouncer almost knocked him out of the 2019 series in England but when Smith returned for the Old Trafford Test, he found a willing student of the game in Labuschagne.
Smith is on an accelerated course to mending, it seems. There was a time when his shorter-format credentials took a hit after he agreed to demote himself as Australia tried to fit Mitchell Marsh into their plans. In Tests though, Smith is the central figure. Add to that the "elevated vice-captaincy"—as new captain Pat Cummins described the role. Smith may be treading the grey area morally with most Australians uncomfortable about his ascension to a leadership role again, but they know they can't skirt the topic for long. Cummins was marked to be captain, but making the leap of faith to a bowler is huge for Cricket Australia. Without Smith, even Cummins admitted that, Australia couldn't have moved forward.
What it means is that Smith is back in favour, and will be captain should Cummins be injured. The long-term plan may not be clear immediately, but with Labuschagne making his presence felt, Smith is the right person to nudge him towards the more challenging duties of leading a team. It's a minor miracle, and a personal triumph, that Smith is still here making every day count since the ban. Visibly more relaxed, Smith is a perfect example of how the game automatically shuts out the world when one is committed to it heart and soul. With the Ashes having arrived, ahead of Smith lies a new path to greatness that can be taken with runs.