AUSSIE cheat Steve Smith struck 144 on his Test return — then revealed: I feared I would never play cricket again!
He was stripped of the captaincy and given a one-year international ban for his part in the sandpapergate scandal of March last year.
But Smith defied the Brummie boo-boys on the first day of The Ashes as Australia recovered from 122-8 to reach 284 all out.
And the batsman, 30, admitted: “It’s got to be one of my best hundreds. It’s been a long time coming, getting another Test hundred. I’m sort of lost for words.
“There were times in the last 15 months where I didn’t know if I was ever going to play cricket again.
“I lost a bit of love for it at one point, particularly when I had my elbow operation in January.
“But it was bizarre that the day I got my brace off my elbow, I found a love for it again.
“It was like a trigger that just said ‘I am ready to go again and I want to play for Australia and make people proud’.
“I am really grateful to be in this position now, playing for Australia again and doing what I love.
“What’s happened is in the past now. I’m moving on and I’m proud to be back here.”
Smith was overcome with emotion as he celebrated his century in his first Test since Cameron Bancroft was caught ball-tampering on his instructions against South Africa last year.
And the No 4 said: “I got the shakes a bit and all the hairs on my neck stood up.
“I saw the boys going berserk on the balcony. Looking up at them, it sent shivers down my spine.
“To be able to get to my hundred and give Peter Siddle a really big hug and let all my emotions out was pretty special.”
Smith was booed by the Edgbaston crowd when he walked out, when he reached 50 and 100 — and even when he was bowled by Stuart Broad.
But he insisted: “It doesn’t bother me. I know I’ve got the support of the boys in the room and, for me, that’s all that matters. I don’t really listen.”
Incredibly, England skipper Joe Root put all NINE outfielders on the boundary at one stage to try and limit the damage after Smith passed 100.
Former England spinner Phil Tufnell blasted: “It’s a white flag from England.”
And Tuffers’ fellow BBC radio commentator Jim Maxwell claimed he would have refused to bowl.
The Aussie said: “This field is embarrassing. I would not bowl to this.”