On this point, Duffy is critical of how Smith’s time in the top job was clouded by cultural baggage inside the organisation.
“Steve doesn’t necessarily fit into that culture the way that they were looking for,” he said. “The burden and what was expected of him to behave in a certain way was obviously pushing him in certain directions that perhaps he was uncomfortable with and struggling with. And I think what the tension was with David as the vice-captain and Steve as captain, I think some people tried to play upon a tension between them because they are very different characters.”
The skipper Duffy first came across had a “certain naivety” to him before the debilitating events of Newlands. The devastation was at its most acute when Smith arrived back to Sydney, images of him breaking down splashed front pages around the world.
“As an individual who is fairly robust and has seen a lot, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said of observing the experience. “The journey he has gone through and abuse he has taken, I’d never encountered anything like it.”
After that, Duffy went to work, connecting with Smith on a daily basis on a program that set out to increase his resilience and ability to free his mind both at the crease and beyond the boundary rope. Sure enough, he took to the task with the unyielding commitment for which he is known as a player.
“Of the hundreds of people I work with, he is in the top three or four per cent who just have a thirst for knowledge,” Duffy said. “He started with a great mindset and the resilience he has built up over the last 12 to 18 months has been significant. But the way he approached it – the relentless perseverance he was willing to put in – was just extraordinary. He is a seriously talented individual and that’s not just inside the game of cricket – as a human being as well.
It would be a tragedy right now if he didn’t get the opportunity to be captain again.
Mind coach Dr Maurice Duffy on Steve Smith
“He’s got great clarity about what he sees. Sometimes I think he is outside of everyday reality in the way that he looks at it. He has a huge ability to be in the moment. I’ve never met anybody with a greater passion for something but sometimes when you are talking to him also you get a sense of serenity from him, nothing is an effort. But the thing that we work on all the time is his presence – his presence in the field and his presence in life is really good. And as you can see, as his coach, I’m a huge admirer of him and what he has achieved.”
Asked during the week about his mindset in Cape Town compared to now, Smith explained the transition. “I’m able to I think catch my mind, where that’s going and the decisions I’m making are a lot more clear with what I’m trying to do. Every decision you make has got an outcome, good, bad and ugly, whatever, I’m able to think of how it’s going to look before I make that decision a lot of the time. Of course, I’ll still make mistakes, I’m a human being, we all do. But being able to catch yourself and the way you’re thinking is something I’ve learnt and something I’ll continue to work on and continue and get better at.”
Because of this, Duffy’s assessment is that Smith is far better equipped to now serve as Australian captain if he is invited to take the position again at the end of Tim Paine’s tenure. “It would be a tragedy right now if he didn’t get the opportunity to be captain again,” he said. “He owns himself much more now. He has an inner calmness. He owns his own feelings a lot better now, he’s much more in control of himself. I think he’s got a better outlook on life right now and I think he appreciates hugely what has been given to him.”
Smith added that he, along with all of his teammates – including Cameron Bancroft, the other Australian player under Duffy’s wing – report in to Cricket Australia’s psychologist in an effort to keep a check on mental health markers. “They can see how we’re tracking and if there’s a change in behaviour, if you’re feeling ill or not sleeping well or feeling a bit off, they’re aware of it. That can sort of start a conversation. Why’s your sleep bad? What’s going on? Why are you feeling a bit off today? It’s good that they do that.”
As for Duffy, beyond the professional pride he can take in adding Smith to the long list of leaders he has helped, he is thrilled to have played his part in denying England the trophy that matters most between the nations. “An Irishman who helped Australia beat the English? That’s coolest thing in the world for us. I get so much pleasure out of that.”