Ashes 2015: Steve Smith has an English mother and a British passport, but there is no doubt whose side the world's best batsman will be on this summer

Those that know him insists that accepting any offer to wear the Three Lions rather than the Baggy Green was never likely

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The Independent Online

Steve Smith was doing more than simply preparing for the Ashes when he pitched up with the touring side to play Kent at Canterbury last week – he was renewing acquaintances. It was here, in the summer of 2007, that an 18-year-old Smith played a single game for Kent Second XI before attracting the attention of Surrey, who offered him a contract that could have turned the career of the world’s No 1 batsman on its head.

Born in Sydney to an English mother and an Australian father, Smith is a British passport holder, and it wasn’t long before his presence in the shires saw counties forming a none-too orderly queue in a bid to secure his services. A first-ball duck for Sevenoaks Vine against Beckenham in his opening innings in the Kent Premier League hardly hinted at greatness but the runs, as well as a few wickets with his developing leg-spin, soon arrived.

Originally due to play in the Lancashire League, Smith had headed south after a bout of homesickness to stay with a family friend. He could hardly have chosen his club more wisely, with Sevenoaks boasting former England internationals Chris Tavare, Mark Benson, Paul Downton and Ed Smith among their alumni.

He hardly tore up trees in the Garden of England, averaging 44 with the bat and 27 with the ball in top-flight league matches. When he made his debut for Kent – in a side containing Sam Northeast, Matt Coles and Sam Billings – in a Second XI fixture against Sussex at the end of May, he scored 39 not out going in at No 8 before registering a duck as an opener in the second innings. He also took 1 for 48 from 13 overs of unremarkable leg-spin.

As debuts go, it was satisfactory but nothing more. Smith, though, was beginning to find his feet. “He was a really nice young guy,” says Gavan Burden, chairman of Sevenoaks Vine’s management committee. “But he wasn’t your average Aussie overseas player, he wasn’t your 18 pints and a curry type of tearaway. He celebrated his 18th birthday when he was here but it was a couple of pints and then an early night to get ready for the cricket, certainly nothing more extravagant.”

 

The weekend after his debut for Kent Seconds, he smashed 62 off just 44 balls for the club, and Surrey were clearly taking note. “He was recommended to us by Nadeem Shahid, who was playing for Bromley at the time,” says Alan Butcher, the father of Mark and the coach of Surrey Second XI in 2007. “We were aware of his passport situation and were interested in taking a look at him.”

Smith did, though, arrive at The Oval with interest centring on his ability as a bowler rather than a batsman. “He came to us as a leg-spinner who could bat,” says Butcher. “And I certainly wouldn’t have said it was obvious that he would end up where he is today as a batter.

“He was obviously talented, he had great hand-eye co-ordination, he was always going to get somewhere, but I think if you even asked people back in Australia at that time, then it wasn’t clear that he was going to achieve what he has eventually achieved.

“He has his own game, he has worked that one out, and he doesn’t always look great, but he finds a way. He plays spin well and he has great shot options all around the wicket.”

Smith ended up playing Second XI cricket for Surrey alongside England’s Chris Jordan and the likes of Stuart Meaker and Rory Hamilton-Brown. In two Championship matches his highest score was 46, while his impact with the ball was negligible, with the exception of his 6 for 14 in a Second XI Trophy one-day contest against Kent at Tonbridge School.

Surrey, however, had seen enough. “If he had accepted our contract then he would have had to have played for New South Wales as an overseas player,” says Butcher. “In the end, I think our offer really made sure that New South Wales moved more quickly to secure his services.

“Graham Thorpe was with New South Wales at the time and I was in contact with him, trying to nail down the deal we had offered. With hand on heart I think Steve made the right decision, I don’t think anyone could argue with that.

“If he had come here as a leg-spinner then I think it would have been very difficult, he would have had a far better chance of making it as a leggie in Australia than here.

“What I would say, though, is that it took him a fair while to turn the contract down. I offered it to him just before he was leaving to go back to Australia, and it was a couple of months before he got back to us and said, ‘Thanks but no thanks’.”

Burden, meanwhile, insists that accepting any offer to wear the Three Lions rather than the Baggy Green was never likely. “We would joke at the club that we would try and find him a pretty young English girl to settle down here with,” he says. In all likelihood, the single-minded, shy Smith would have ignored her glances on his way to the nets for some throwdowns anyway.

With Sevenoaks’ annual cricket week coming up, Burden would love to have attracted Smith back down to the club’s near-300-year old Vine Ground to deliver a similar masterclass to the ones he has been conducting around the world over the past 12 months. “But it’s the week of the First Test, so he’ll probably have other things on his mind,” Burden says.

Butcher, meanwhile, has recently been back in touch with Smith on the Twittersphere, and gave the  Australia vice-captain some advice while he was in Dominica at the start of June.

“I told him I had stayed where the Aussies were staying, and to make sure he had some clothes on when he walked out on to his balcony first thing in the morning,” jokes Butcher. “Otherwise the occupants of the cruise ships docked in the bay could have got more than they bargained for.” By the time the Ashes end, England might have seen quite enough of him too.

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