Steve Smith was back, leading from the front in an epic Ashes battle … and his relief was palpable.
“There were times throughout the last 15 months where I didn’t know if I was ever going to play cricket again,” Smith told reporters having rescued Australia from embarrassment on day one of the Ashes.
With Australia in big strife at 8-122, Smith’s knock of 144 helped the tourists to a respectable 284.
The former skipper ignored the catcalls and boos from the Edgbaston crowd about his role in the ball-tampering scandal and said after afterwards that his love of cricket had returned.
“I lost a bit of love for it at one point, particularly when I had my elbow operation,” he said, explaining his love of the game returned once his brace came off.
“And I wanted to go out and play for Australia and make people proud, and do what I love doing. I have never had those feelings before.
I didn’t have a great sort of love for the game, and it was there for a little while. Fortunately, that love has come back.
“I’m really grateful to be in this position, playing for Australia again and doing what I love.”
Smith’s great knock was ably supported by veteran bowler Peter Siddle and then Nathan Lyon.
Siddle’s inclusion ahead of Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc for the opening Ashes Test was controversial, but the Victorian’s solid 44 from 85 balls provided a crucial 88-run partnership with Smith.
“I was just telling him to watch the ball and just keep watching it really hard and play his natural game,” Smith said.
“When they over-pitched he drove a few balls really nicely. When they bowled short he was getting underneath it the majority of the time.
“His defence was magnificent, he was willing to get beaten every now and again and just play the line of the ball.”
Siddle now has more work to do with the ball on day two.
He has good recent form in England where he has taken 34 wickets with an average of just over 20 for Essex in the first division of the County Championship.
Smith believes Siddle can enjoy similar success to what Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes had in the Australian innings.
Broad finished with figures of 5-86 and Woakes took 3-58 in an under-manned home attack which was forced to cope without Jimmy Anderson, who aggravated a calf injury having bowled just four overs.
“It’s great to see Sidds back; he’s very experienced, he’s played a lot of cricket over here and he’s a bowler similar to Woakes who hits the stumps a lot,” Smith said.
“He is maybe a little bit shorter and is able to hit the stumps from a shorter length.
“It’s going to be crucial on this wicket and I think it’s a wicket that will really suit him.”
Smith’s innings was hailed on social media as one of the best by past and present cricketers, with even former English soccer player Gary Linekar turned sports commentator noting the emotion of the moment.
England paceman Stuart Broad, an authority on copping abuse during Ashes tours, believes the treatment dished out to Smith at Edgbaston is part of being a professional sportsman.
Smith was booed at every stage of his big innings, with some English fans donning masks of Smith fashioned from the photo of him repeatedly breaking down in tears at Sydney airport last year, and waved sandpaper at the batsman.
“Having gone through getting a bit of stick in Australia, I think it’s part of being a professional sportsman,” Broad said.
“I actually quite enjoyed it. It was something a bit different and it was a bit of a challenge for me going to Australia, and getting ready for that sort of crowd stuff.
“I think footballers who play away from home get it all the time … it’s just a bit unexpected sometimes in cricket, but Smithy seemed to deal with it OK.”
Smith insisted Thursday’s noise didn’t bother or motivate him.
“I know I’ve got the support of the boys in the room and, for me, that’s all that really matters,” he said.
“The Aussie supporters that were here, they were very loud today when I got to a hundred. It’s great to have some Aussie support over here.”