BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - A hostile crowd and an Australia team in dire straits spurred Steve Smith to score one of the most memorable Ashes centuries as he made his test comeback against England on Thursday after being banned for his role in a ball-tampering scandal.
The 30-year-old Smith was greeted by a chorus of boos as he made his way to the crease. The home fans kept on taunting him by waving sandpaper throughout his innings.
But the distractions failed to knock Smith off his stride as he scored a brilliant 144 to help Australia recover from 122 for eight to 284 all out.
“I didn’t really know what to do (when I reached the century) to be honest, this has been a long time coming,” Smith said after the opening day of the first test.
“I am lost for words.
“I am really proud that I was able to pull the team out of trouble. It has got to be one of my best 100s.”
Smith was stripped of the captaincy and handed a 12-month ban by Cricket Australia after team mate Cameron Bancroft was caught on camera attempting to change the condition of the ball with sandpaper during a March 2018 test in South Africa.
Bancroft and David Warner were also banned for their part in the incident and returned to test action on Thursday.
“There were times throughout the last 15 months where I didn’t know if I was going to play cricket again. I lost a bit of love for the game,” added Smith.
“I have never had those feelings before, fortunately that love has come back.
“I know I have the support of the guys in the dressing room. Just looking up at them sent shivers down my spine.”
Retired Australia spinner Shane Warne said the raucous crowd at Edgbaston, especially England’s Barmy Army, could get to “sensitive” Smith, who publicly broke down in tears in the aftermath of the ball tampering scandal.
But when Smith walked out with Australia struggling on 17-2, he was determined to prove his worth.
With the world watching, Smith crafted a sublime 219-ball knock in which he stroked 16 boundaries and two sixes before he was last man out, bowled by Stuart Broad.
Former India batsman Virender Sehwag hailed Smith as “one of the best batsman in test cricket”, while ex-England captain Michael Vaughan summed up the effort as “one of the all-time outstanding test innings”.
“To do that in his first innings back in test cricket is remarkable ... Sometimes you have to admire greatness,” added Vaughan.
In the 54 matches Smith has played starting with the 2013 Oval Ashes test, he has chalked up a phenomenal first innings record.
If Australia bat first, he averages over 100 in the first innings, with 15 centuries in 30 innings.
“You have to bowl well at him (Smith) in the first 20 balls or so,” Broad said. “He is arguably the best batsman in the world at batting with the tail.
“For us to win this Ashes series, we are going to have to get him out early.”
Had Smith, who was well supported by tailenders Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon, succumbed early on, England were primed to seize the initiative when Australia were tottering on 122-8.
Instead, the pressure is now on England to match Smith’s heroic exploits which, judging by his incredible batting display in Birmingham, will be no easy task.
Reporting by Peter Hall, editing by Pritha Sarkar