A few years ago, if you asked any cricket fan whether Steve Smith would become the best batsman in the world, they'd have laughed you and pointed you to the nearest mental institution.
Today, though, Smith is officially the best batsman on the planet. Many believe he is one of the best since Sir Donald Bradman. Last week, in just his 49th Test match for Australia, Smith scored his 17th Test century to steer his team to a series victory against Pakistan. As he cruised to an unbeaten 165 during the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, the spectators accordingly stood to their feet to acknowledge a young man rewriting age-old record books.
But would you believe Smith was initially picked to become the leg-spin heir of Shane Warne?
A relative unknown to Australian cricket fans, Smith made his international debut in 2010 in a T20 international against Pakistan. Five months later, his childhood dream became reality as he was picked for a neutral tour, also against Pakistan. A peroxide-haired Smith walked onto the most famous cricket ground in the world, Lord's, chosen as Australian Test player 415 just six weeks after his 21st birthday.
In the early phase of his Test career, you could be forgiven for being a sceptic of Smith's Test selection. The Aussie team was stacked with the monolithic names of Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey and Mitchell Johnson. Their Pakistani opponents boasted a side that contained the stubborn Shahid Afridi and the world-class pace attack of Umar Gul, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Amir.
Wedged in the middle was Smith, an inconspicuous all-rounder from the Illawong Menai Cricket Club in Sydney's southern Sutherland Shire. With only 13 first-class matches for New South Wales to his name, and initially chosen as the front-line spinner in the absence of Nathan Hauritz, the expectations for Smith were low.
Smith scored an underwhelming 13 runs across both innings as Australia set Pakistan an unmanageable 440 for victory. On an aging Lord's pitch, Smith took 3 for 51, but was again outshone by Marcus North's match-winning 6 for 55 as Australia won by 150 runs. Although Smith was overshadowed, then-Aussie captain Ponting was delighted with Smith's efforts.
"He is just a great kid to have around the side," Ponting said after the match. "His enthusiasm is terrific and we did not see the best of him with the bat this game. He is a highly talented batter as well."
The second Test at Leeds was one to forget for the Australians. Routed for 88 in the first innings, victory was impossible. Ponting's words rung true, though; Smith equal-top scored with 77 in Australia's second innings, but the damage had already been done.
Four months later, Smith was selected for the final three matches of Australia's soul-crushing home Ashes defeat to England. A record three innings-losses would sound the death knell to Ponting's Test captaincy, as English opener Alastair Cook plundered 766 runs at 127.66. Contrastingly, in his three matches, Smith scored 159 runs at a respectable 31.80, but took no wickets.
Smith travelled with the Aussies to India for the 2011 World Cup, but some further on-field struggles were compounded by a spectacular blow-up by Ponting when the pair collided while trying to take a catch. The selectors began to lose patience. Smith was a liability, and was booted from the team.
Smith would not don the Baggy Green for over two years. When he was selected as a specialist batsman in the Australian squad for the tour of India in 2013, he had a chance to right the wrongs he suffered under Ponting. The torrid tour saw the Australians surrender the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in a shocking 4-0 whitewash. However, Smith contributed in the final two matches of the series, averaging 40.25 with a high of 92 in Mohali.
Smith has played every Test match for his country since. In between, he skippered New South Wales to a first Sheffield Shield title in six years in 2014, scoring an unbeaten 104 along the way to add to his successful captaincy in the 2011/12 Big Bash League for the Sydney Sixers. Smith's maiden Test century came in his twelfth match, with an unbeaten 138 coming at The Oval in the English Ashes series in 2013.
Fast forward to today, and after 49 matches, 'Smudge' has 17 Test centuries from 90 innings. He is the fourth fastest batsman in history to 17 Test centuries after Bradman (50 innings), Sunil Gavaskar (81 innings) and Matthew Hayden (82 innings).
No batsman has scored more Test runs than Smith since the start of 2014. Over three years, in 33 Test matches, Smith scored 3699 runs at a mind-numbing 75.48. He aided the Aussies to the 2013-14 Ashes whitewash and 2015 World Cup victory on home soil, won the Allan Border Medal, and was named the ICC Cricketer of the Year. In many ways, Smith has nearly single-handedly redefined batting, and has also set the benchmark in the field after snagging some unbelievable catches.
At age 27, Smith has averaged above 70 and scored more than 1000 Test runs in each of the last three years. Only Bradman can boast better numbers. However, regardless of these recent records, 2017 will be the most important year of Smith's career.
His captaincy was exposed in 2016 after crushing series losses to Sri Lanka and South Africa. The series win against Pakistan is a welcome relief, but his focus will shortly turn towards the tour of India, where the Australians have won just one series dating back to 1979. He will then attempt to regain the urn from England next summer.
His quality as a batsman is obvious. His captaincy, despite at times being questionable, is innovative. A modern-day great, Smith will go beyond his predecessors should he and his team find their winning ways in 2017.