Early in the day Stuart Broad rolled his fingers on the ball and foxed Shaun Marsh with a slower delivery. The sparkling mind of Joe Root had already set the field for the mistimed drive. The ball looped to James Anderson at shortish mid-off. It was 175 for 5.
And with that proven trap set for most of the day, Steve Smith decided to eschew the drive altogether. Ball after ball was pitched up, and were either allowed to go through or were gently pushed and patted.
Progress was slow. The first hour saw Smith score 8 runs, the second 9, the third 13. This was a man whose strike rate generally hovered in the more than respectable regions of the high fifties.
But Smith knew how important his wicket was, especially with Tim Paine and Mitchell Starc dismissed within a few minutes of each other.
He carried on. There is a reason why the Australian skipper’s handsome collection of 5511 runs in just 57 Tests have been gathered at an average of 61.23. The key ingredient to success in modern-day sports is to stay ahead of the opposition. And if the opponent happens to be a thinking captain like Root, marshalling the field in conjunction with his troop of skilled bowlers, the cricket on display boils down to a fascinating game of chess. Move, countermove and the extremely important feature of seizing the initiative.
And today, Smith approached the middle and end games, as the Australian pieces and pawns fell around him, like the seasoned Grand Master. Root set fields with extreme care, and the Australian captain avoided the traps in a sterling display of patience. The patience of a nature that underlines that the modern cricketing greats, with their wide array of strokes, are not averse to the old school approach.
He entered the 90s off the 230th ball he faced. After another 30 deliveries, he had added just 7. Not that he slowed for the milestone. At the same time, it is not that the milestone did not play on his mind. The reaction on reaching three-figures indicated what I always maintain, milestones are important for every cricketer. That is what motivates them, that is what drives them to excel and perform like champions.
It was just that he had a plan, a master strategy to outwit whatever Root threw at him. Therefore he was in no hurry. He knew as long as he stayed there and guided the tail around him, runs would come and the Australians would thrive.
Yet, Smith, the thinking batsman is more than concocted strategy. That he left the drivable balls did not become a blanket ploy. The flexibility of thought is as important to success in top-level sports as technique and execution.
When Broad, by now nearly bereft of ideas, ran in round the wicket and sent down an overpitched delivery, down came Smith’s broad blade and drove it past mid-off to bring up his impeccable ton off 261 balls. A knock of a genius.
But his work was not over. Pat Cummins was batting well, and Smith was in no hurry to shift gears. Anderson kept feeding him full outside the off, and he left them alone. Allowed the Lancashire veteran a maiden. By the time Cummins was caught beautifully in the slips by Alastair Cook, Smith had played another 13 balls and added just 2 more.
And then came the timely shift, the initiative was seized. Not in any reckless manner, but with gradual acceleration. Anderson was dispatched beyond point for four, Woakes uppercut to fine thirdman.
With Josh Hazlewood showing signs of the same bulldog tenacity as the others in the tail, the sense of urgency waned. Smith milked the bowling yet again, with full faith in his partner.
But after Moeen Ali bowled the New South Wales paceman and Nathan Lyon was in, there was a change of tactics once more.
Jake Ball steamed in with the field packed for the short-pitched stuff. No one at mid-off. Smith did have a momentary lapse of concentration as he tried a down-the-line smash off one that climbed over his head. But the very next ball he was back to cricketing strokes. The short one was taken off his ribs and whipped to the leg boundary. Australia had the lead.
And when an over later Ball overpitched a teeny but, Smith unleashed the straight drive once again, something he had not done all morning. And it raced away.
Finally, Woakes tried to pitch short and Smith had all the time in the world to rock back and pull him over mid-wicket.
Lyon eventually fell to the scantily used off-break sent down by Root. The captain stepping up to end the frustrating stint of the tail himself. But by then Australia had a 26-run lead, which, given England lost their first two wickets for 17, can have a huge bearing on the match.
Smith returned, unconquered on 141, an innings of incredible character, lasting more than six and a half hours, full of poise, patience and phenomenal tactical acumen.
Root’s captaincy has been sterling. But Smith did outgeneral him during his own innings in a brilliant show of cerebral batsmanship. A fascinating game of chess between two young captains.