Filthy reactions reveal Smith’s genius
There's something of a mad scientist in Steve Smith when he bats and no matter how good the innings he's constructed, he's never entirely satisfied with his creation.
Smith is always busy in the middle. Whether it's fidgeting with his gear, crabbing across the crease or contorting his body in weird ways to open up obscure angles, Smith's body and mind are racing when he clocks on for the job.
But even as the former Australian skipper churned out a half century against Sri Lanka on Saturday night (AEST) - his third for this World Cup and eighth score of 50 or more in his past 10 World Cup innings - Smith was a hard man to please.
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The 30-year-old cracked 73 off 59 balls and shared a 173-run third-wicket partnership with captain Aaron Finch at The Oval and there were plenty of moments to marvel at. A square drive he laced behind point for four early in his innings was one, somehow digging out a yorker and whipping it to the square leg fence was another.
But among the batting artistry were clear signs Smith's pursuit of perfection means he'll rarely be completely content. In London on Saturday, the returning star was absolutely filthy with the most minor errors that cost him on the scoreboard.
Facing the finger spin of Milinda Siriwardana in the 31st over, Smith glided a cut shot straight to backward point and was furious with himself for not splitting the two men behind square on the off side and picking up a boundary. He shook his head, gesticulated with his hands about how he should have manipulated his bat and walked a few paces towards the square leg umpire to chastise himself.
In the same over he drove a half volley to deep cover-point for a single but didn't hit it anywhere near the middle of the bat. Again, Smith's face said it all. His head rocked back in regret and he stretched his right arm out, signalling he should have opened the face to slice it behind the man on the boundary to increase the odds of coming back for a second run.
Smith's inner angst didn't escape Mel Jones while she was commentating for BBC radio.
"Steve Smith's a brilliant player but he should never play poker," Jones said. "You know exactly what he's thinking."
Everyone at the ground knew Smith was upset he'd missed out on four runs when he punched a drive straight to cover off Thisara Perera in the 34th over. He gestured once more with his right arm, upset he hadn't avoided the fielder and beefed up his tally.
Smith changed tack slightly and waved his left arm to express his frustration when he got a thick inside edge to an attempted slog over mid-wicket in the 38th over but he can't have been too angry when he was bowled by a perfect Lasith Malinga yorker a handful of overs later. If he couldn't keep that delivery out, few others in the world would have stood a chance.
But at least part of the reason Smith is so good is because he's so hard on himself. He's always wanting more.
Finch copied his comrade at times when he didn't achieve the desired result off a particular ball during his record-setting knock of 153, giving him the highest score ever by an Australian captain at a World Cup.
Jones compared the batting pair's reactions, likening Finch to Smith. "You could see it all over his body shape, his body language out in the middle," she said when the skipper fumed at a missed opportunity.
In the context of the match, Smith's innings was vital. He supported Finch brilliantly as the captain rollicked to his 14th ODI century and was hardly a slouch himself.
The Aussies have been bogged down in the middle overs at times during this World Cup but Smith ensured that didn't happen, finishing with a strike rate of 123.72 and batting deep into the innings as he rotated the strike with ease and found the boundary when needed.
But it says something about his hunger as a batsman and intensity at the crease that every slight blip - of which there were so few - still riled Smith up. The man is obsessed with batting and is hellbent on being better.
His obsession was clear at The Oval's indoor nets the day before the Sri Lanka game. As batsmen faced throw-downs from Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting and Brad Haddin or the leg-spin of Adam Zampa, most faced their allotment of balls then left the nets altogether.
Smith finished his hit, came out and took his pads off but unlike his teammates, even though his work with the willow was over, he hung around for the next hour-and-half. It was like he couldn't bear to drag himself away from a situation where bats and balls were involved.
Smith picked up Shaun Marsh's bat and tested its pick-up, and did the same with his own stick as he adopted his batting stance and tapped it behind his right foot. If he wasn't locked in discussion with Ponting or sharing a word with Langer, he was rolling his arm over, starting with off-spin before changing to his customary leggies.
One experimental delivery with an extreme side-arm action didn't go exactly to plan. "I've seen worse," he joked to reporters watching on as he cracked a smile.
We've seen innings far worse than what Smith produced against Sri Lanka but such is his desire to keep hitting new standards of excellence, it will come as no surprise he'll be hoping for an even better return next time he's in the middle.