England v Australia warm-up: Steve Smith’s century comes amid boos at Hampshire Bowl

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Is Steve Smith going to soundtrack the English summer?

The tune? Flicks, clips, fifties and hundreds, all marked by raucous boos.

The former Australia captain’s first century since returning from a one-year ban for his part in the ball-tampering scandal was imperious in its execution – and ominous for England in their biggest summer for a generation.

Not perhaps for the hosts’ World Cup ambitions – though Smith’s 116 off 102 balls was enough for a thrilling 12-run win on Saturday – but for the Ashes that follow, he gave early notice of his hunger to replicate the majestic form that saw him crush England in 2017-18 with 687 runs at an average of 137.40.

And he might well be booed all the way.

Booed to the crease here in Southampton, booed at fifty, booed even when reaching a century, and booed when dismissed. England fans might need some honey and lemon this summer.

Or just stop booing if beneath his restored unflappable demeanour, this pantomime animosity is driving him on.

Steve Smith walks off after scoring a hundred against England

Smith will have expected this reception even before he had it confirmed by David Warner’s entrance to open the batting.

Warner is one of cricket’s most complex characters. But to England fans he is simply a villain – seen as the mastermind of the ball-tampering plot, his apology news conference evasive where Smith and Cameron Bancroft’s were gut-wrenching.

Even sprinting past partner Aaron Finch to get on first could not dampen the barrage of boos. But Warner soon settled, not quite with the fluency he showed in this year’s Indian Premier League (IPL), but still cracking five fours around the ground.

England captain Eoin Morgan has said his side will not sledge Australia about ball-tampering – but his players still know how to play to the crowd, with Jonny Bairstow pointing to the stands to celebrate catching Warner.

Fittingly, it was Warner giving his own look to the fans after catching Bairstow. Team-mates at Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL, their rivalry has now resumed.

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Exit Warner, enter Smith – the crowd making a very deliberate pause to tell him that these boos were specifically for him, this time also accompanied by a chant of “cheat, cheat, cheat”.

Smith, deemed the next Donald Bradman down under, robbed himself of a year of his prime and his stellar career will have an asterisk in indelible ink – thousands upon thousands of runs, but it should have been several thousand more.

This knock in an unofficial match will not count to the tally but how he went, how he reacted here would mean so much.

Tapping his pads and box as he walked to square between deliveries. Carving the ball into gaps with ease. You might be tempted to say it is like Smith never went away.

But in South Africa last year, Smith was a ragged shadow of himself. He had been worn down by an Ashes series in which he took sleeping pills for his nerves and a dismal showing in the one-day series defeat by England. It was a run during which he later said he had never hit the ball worse.

The Smith that returned on Saturday looked renewed, back to the monastic batsman who eschews all temptation and grinds down bowlers. It took a contentious caught and bowled decision to remove him.

Move across, flick off the pads. If it is wide, angle the bat and nudge into the gaps. The occasional flurry but nothing reckless. Everything in its right place.

It is masterful batting and many did applaud all day. However, plenty were not here to celebrate mastery, but to condemn deceit.

So is it fair? Is it going too far to boo Smith, Warner and Bancroft at every turn this summer? Speaking on Test Match Special, former England spinner Graeme Swann on called on fans not to jeer.

One spectator, dressed as a cricket ball, throws sandpaper at Glenn Maxwell during England's innings

A lot of it is tongue in cheek – the man dressed as a ball with a sandpaper hat on throwing a bit of sandpaper towards Glenn Maxwell for the fielder to sign, only to drop two yards short.

But there is also an edge: “Get off the field, Warner, you cheat.” And it is an edge you can only imagine increasing in a well-oiled Hollies Stand for the Ashes opener at Edgbaston.

Were they treated harshly? Even if the punishments for ball-tampering have since been increased, they are still far short of the year-long bans for Smith and Warner, and nine months for Bancroft.

Others have tampered and moved on, though perhaps this was cheating so blatant its very preposterousness – sandpaper down trousers – made it all the more heinous.

And there is still so much we don’t know. Who knew what and when? How long had it being going on? Just that South Africa series? The Ashes? Further back?

There is also the legacy of the abrasive Australia sides that came before, winning countless games but not many friends.

In the boos, there is anger at former coach Darren Lehmann calling on fans to make Stuart Broad cry after not walking.

At Warner for calling Jonathan Trott “poor and weak” before the England batsman went home with a stress-related illness.

At Warner for punching Joe Root.

It may get tedious but on the song will go: Smith scoring runs to a chorus of boos.

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BBC Sport – Sport

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