The first ball Steven Smith faced in the innings was a half-volley from Chris Woakes that he nonchalantly caressed to the cover boundary, his awkward bat angle coming into play and his natural hand eye coordination taking over as willow met leather.
It was a typical Steven Smith start. He is known to get fidgety at the crease early and likes to keep the scoreboard ticking. His gameplay revolves around his slick style at the crease and the bat coming down from that huge backlift to meet the ball with disdain.
With David Warner at the other end, Australia had two of their best batsmen out in the middle. England were on top courtesy the two early wickets but without getting rid of these two they could barely relax.
“Nullify the impact of those two (Smith and David Warner) and there is a good chance of getting them for under 200”, Russell Domingo, the South African coach last year when the Proteas buried the Aussies in their own backyard, says.
But it doesn’t come easy. These are modern-day giants, with God-given talents adorning their willows. To “nullify” their impact is rare. To do that consistently is even rarer. But South Africa had done it and there was reason England couldn’t. After Joe Root had been proactive with his captaincy and the England think tank would have had specific plans against these two, nurtured and practised for countless hours before Gabba.
And then Warner did the unthinkable. He jabbed at a short of a length delivery from the supposed weak link in England’s attack, Jake Ball. The catch was taken and Australia were under the pump at 59/3. Peter Handscomb fell to an Anderson beauty and all of a sudden Steven Smith found himself stranded with perhaps the most inconsistent batsmen in Australia’s Test cricket history, Shaun Marsh.
Smith knew he had to get a grip of proceedings. But he had an albatross around his neck. To bat in his own, charming, easy manner he needed the assurance of Marsh. After all, at 34, Marsh had all the experience in the World if not the runs. All he needed to do was hang around. Smith knew his way around this attack, if not most attacks in the World.
And they resurrected the innings just like that. Smith was prepared to go the conventional route – unconventional for him – and ground out the hard runs. It was tough batting.
True the England bowlers had tired out, true the pitch had eased but Smith carried a truckload of pressure on his shoulders.
The Aussie tongues had wagged quite a lot prior to the series. They needed to back it up with performances on the field.
Joe Root had himself voiced his opinion on Australia’s baseless jabs before the series. “That’s not how I’d want my players to go about things… it’s slightly out of character,” Root had told reporters in Brisbane, before the first Test started.
“Whether it’s maybe a team strategy or he’s just taken it upon himself to do that — who knows? The more guys talk going into a series, the more they put pressure on themselves.”
But Australia were…well, Australia. They couldn’t let slip any opportunity to have a word or two. They trust their players to back it up with on-field performances. But Smith was starting to look tense. He had lost the cream of his batting line-up. It was upto Smith and Marsh to resuscitate this innings.
He scored just 4 runs in the next 30 balls of the innings. But the moment Stuart Broad landed something in his zone, Smith unfurled a classic on-drive, the ball scurrying away to the fence in a hurry.
When Woakes returned to the attack, he tested Smith with the short ball. One of them hurried onto the Aussie skipper and thw resultant pull shot, half-hearted and without intent, nearly landed in the hands of a fielder. But the next ball, a rubbish delivery on the stumps was out away with ease by Smith.
Yet, he never left his bubble. On most occasions, Smith would decimate opposition bowlers once he got going. He was timing the ball beautifully, leaving wonderfully well, middling anything and everything in his zone. Still, he was hanging back, patient, not looking to overhit, not letting his natural front foot drive result in a loose dismissal.
CricViz estimates that Smith played just 15% of the deliveries from seamers on the front foot. His career percentage is a whopping 44%. There was purposeful intent to negotiate the ball late, take minimal risks and do damage control. He needed to. With Marsh at the other end and Tim Paine, playing his first Test in seven years to follow, Smith couldn’t afford to make a mistake. He wasn’t making any. He wouldn’t for the remainder of the day.
The half-century came up in 112 balls. It was slow, almost sluggish, but chanceless. That’s all Australia needed. After they had scythed through England’s lower order earlier in the day, they couldn’t afford to let slip the advantage, and Smith was waging a lonely battle here.
Even when Marsh got more comfortable at the other end, Smith resisted playing anything adventurous. It was uncanny and unlike Smith but an exceptional Test innings nevertheless; one which would make the Pujaras and Chanderpauls of the World proud. Even as the lights faded and the teams separated at stumps, Smith was a picture of concentration. He remained unbeaten on 64 off 148 balls, rallying along the inconsistent Marsh and proudly wrestling home the advantage on a see-sawing day of cricket.
It was Ashes at its best. Cricket at its best. The message from the Australian skipper was pretty clear. If England needed to win the series, they had to get past him. The more they fail to do that, the lesser their chances of overcoming the Aussies.