Steve vs Steve: An insight into the careers of Australia's best-of-their-times
Today, the 2nd of June, we celebrate the birthday of two extraordinary cricketers who grew in stature as their careers progressed, and have been widely regarded as one of the best players of their times. Is it a coincidence that they share their nationality, their birthdays and even their first names (well, a major part of it)?
Today, on the 2nd of June, as we wish Steve Waugh and Steven Smith, a very happy birthday, let's also take a look at the legacy they have with the Australian team.
Steve Waugh: A leader among men
Much like his predecessors Allan Border and Mark Taylor, Waugh was also an epitome of mental stamina and patience.
His aggression was more of just an added bonus. If the two captains before him established a work culture for the Australian cricket team which was on the way to being the best side in the world, Waugh was responsible for infusing ruthlessness and a winning habit into the side.
Under Waugh, Australia wasn't just winning games, they were destroying opponents, especially in Tests where the team redefined the way red-ball cricket was played. His captaincy was pivotal to this and so was his dogged style of batting where the modus operandi was to tire out the bowlers and then, feast on them.
His career as a whole was a stark contrast to the time he started out in international cricket as a raw youngster who was being baptized by fire against the furious West Indians.
A lad who could bat decently and also roll out useful medium-pacers to stifle the opposition's scoring rate - that was Waugh at best.
Having made his international debut in the 1985-86 season, it took a while for him to find his feet in Tests but Steve embraced the ODI format instantly.
It was shortly after the World Cup win of 1987 that his twin brother Mark Waugh joined the national team and the brothers as a combination went on to produce several magnificent partnerships for the team.
Much like his twin brother Mark, Steve also relished playing on the big stage - be it the World Cups or the Ashes, he just plundered runs. Waugh didn't have a particularly pretty technique or batting stance but it was mighty effective.
He was always willing to fight it out, even if it meant to look ugly at times. The efficiency was all that he cared about as he built his knocks brick by brick, blunting the opposition bowlers to submission.
He was also a fantastic player of spin - a quality that not many non-Asian players had, especially not the Australians. In ODIs, Waugh batted with a calculated mind and focused a lot on rotating the strike before launching the big shots when set.
Having watched the highlight reels of that epic tournament-turning century against South Africa in the 1999 World Cup over and over again so many times, I can surely ascertain the enormous presence that he was in his Aussie side, who further went on a roll to claim their second ever World Cup title.
As a captain, Waugh was unfazed even in the trickiest of situations and this helped the Australians to get across the line in many scenarios.
His attacking style of captaincy saw the team being the most verbally aggressive side in the world, often getting under the skins of the opposition through sledging, something that was rarely seen in cricket previously.
Although not a commonly accepted tactic, he carried it out efficiently himself and goaded his mates to do the same.
His partner in crime was the legendary leg-spinner Shane Warne as the duo would control the side's on-field activities to unsettle the opposition.
Waugh was also the first captain who thought proactively in Tests, calling his teammates to adopt a free-wheeling style of strokeplay to ensure that the bowlers had enough time to take 20 wickets. It revolutionised the format and with time, the other teams also took the cue.
Despite all the achievements, Waugh's career, ODIs, in particular, ended on a sour note. After the VB Series disaster in 2002 when Australia failed to make the final in the tri-series that featured South Africa and New Zealand, both the Waugh brothers were sent packing from the squad.
For Steve, it was a straight removal from captaincy and into the sidelines, out of the squad. Needless to say, it hurt him big and although Mark retired from international cricket in the same year, Steve continued to lead the Test side and was making a fair amount of runs as well.
However, with Ricky Ponting rising quickly up the ranks and also leading Australia to their third World Cup title in 2003, the pressure was certainly on Steve and he finally bid farewell in the 2003-04 home series against India.
He ended in style, producing a match-saving 80 to deny the Indians of what would have been a historic series win.
Off the field, Waugh is a pioneer in charity, setting up a lot of homes in Calcutta for leprosy patients. He was a frequent visitor to India for the same and as time went by, he started spreading this to other parts of the world, notably in Australia itself.
He has also been an active social worker in his country although he has rubbished reports of entering politics.
His son Austin Waugh is following the same footsteps and was a part of the Australian U19 team that played in the 2018 World Cup. A cold-blooded leader, determined batsman and an inspiration to his mates, Waugh was iconic to Australia's rise as a dominant team.
Steve Smith: A sum of crests and troughs
In an age where ODIs, T20s and short but effective innings are given a bigger priority than anchoring and weighing down the opposition with unlimited patience, Smith is a superhuman, with the way he has adjusted himself across all known formats.
The best Test batsman of the current age, Steven Smith's career redemption as well as its downfall, is a story for the ages.
Having made his name initially as a potential leg-spinner who could bat a bit, there was immense criticism, even among those in Australia over the quality of his selection during his early days in international cricket.
However, they were made to eat humble pie as the enigmatic man from New South Wales turned things around in sensational fashion to feature among the best batsmen in the world.
It was the 2007-08 domestic season when Smith made his presence known across various formats, in games within Australia.
He was known to give the ball a good finger-work and could generate a lot of turn as a leg-spinner. His boyish charm and the run-up to the crease even drew comparisons with none other than Warne himself, who had just retired from international cricket just a couple of years prior to Steve's entry.
In the initial years, Smith's talent was evident but he was too raw for the big stage. His first national call-up came happened in February 2010, as he debuted for the country in limited overs.
The tour of England later that year saw his initiation in the longest format as well. Smith started off as a player who could bat at No. 7 or No. 8 apart from bowling his leggies. However, there was still a lot of rawness in his skill set.
His selection during the Ashes series of 2010-11 drew a lot of negative comments and as Australia eventually lost the urn to their rivals the English, his career also started fading, being dropped from all formats of the game.
That was probably when it was widely felt among the pundits that the guy had more talent with the bat than with the ball.
Former Indian coach and Australian great Greg Chappell even went on to remark that Smith could be the best batting talent in the country. In the coming years, he would be proved right in a big way.
Fittingly, it was another Ashes series that showcased Smith's resurgence. During the trip of England in 2013, he exhibited a far more improved level of batsmanship, coupled with a good dose of grit and mental strength.
The unorthodox technique and the tendency to shuffle across the stumps which he exhibited more often than not, still continued to raise eyebrows among the purists.
The bottom line though was that it proved effective and he had an impressive series. Although Australia lost the series, the selectors decided to invest in the new version of Smith and the return Ashes series at home that summer saw him continue his upward graph.
His contributions became more valuable as more series progressed, and as Australia emerged victorious more often than not.
If the 2013-14 season saw Smith making a strong comeback to the international arena, the following season established him among the best in the world. A phenomenal home series against India was the starting point and he hasn't looked back ever since, racking up runs in all conditions against all kinds of attacks.
His exploits saw him ranked number one in Tests during the year 2015 and he has remained there since then, by a fairly good margin as well.
Even while batting through unorthodox methods, Smith continued to show that he virtually had everything covered.
In 2015, he was expectedly appointed as Australia's captain for Tests and ODIs while the T20I leadership came over the next six months.
White-ball cricket has also been a success for Smith although not as much as his Test heroics. In ODIs especially, he has worked himself up the ladder as a premier batsman. The 2015 World Cup was memorable for him as he became the first player to achieve five successive fifty-plus scores in the tournament's history.
Those included the quarterfinal, semifinal and final. In T20Is, Smith hasn't quite had the impact that he would have liked to. Missing most of the series hasn't helped either. Nevertheless, his prowess has been on show during the T20 leagues, notably in the IPL where he even led the Pune franchise to the final in 2017. At the 2018 auctions, he was picked up by the Rajasthan franchise and was slated to lead.
All crests have a trough following them, don't they? Tragedy finally struck fiercely on Australia's tour of South Africa in March 2018.
The series was strongly contested like most series between the two sides but the on-field controversy ruled the roost with things getting ugly in the third Test at Cape Town.
Australia were found guilty of ball tampering that was apparently preplanned as well. As a result, Smith along with vice-captain David Warner and rookie Cameron Bancroft faced the boot.
The ICC slammed a one-Test ban on Smith who was enduring a poor series with the bat as well but the punishment back home from Cricket Australia was more severe - a one year exile from all forms of cricket.
The incident saw him being stripped of IPL captaincy for the Royals and consequently, ruled out of the tournament. As the Royals bundled out after just making into the playoffs, it was widely understood that they did miss the services of someone like Smith.
All eyes will be on how he deals with this tough period. Given the time he was having, a bad patch was on the offing at some point but nobody would have predicted such a downward spiral.
But all this does not mean that his career is over. He is definitely slated to return back into the international circuit by April next year, and two months later, the World Cup begins, with Australia definitely looking to rely on the services of this man. Australian cricket and the sport in general will be better served if he can return as a stronger person.
For now, it is time to wish all goodwill for two legends of the game, from two different times - one erstwhile, one modern, as both Steves celebrate their birthdays today.