Middle distance races like 1500m and 5000m are considered the most tactical of track events. And one of the famed manoeuvres to outwit the strongest opponent is to pick up pace, even beyond your maximum level, just about the time the other is accelerating into a burst. When the challenger sees that even his best effort is not good enough to close the distance between you and him, to be precise the gap just keeps getting bigger, he becomes prone to helplessness and eventually gives up. And once his pace slackens, you, leading him by a distance, can actually finish it off by taking it much easier towards the end.
Watching England’s struggles against Australia one is reminded of this feeling of helplessness encountered by the above-mentioned middle-distance runner.
One can hardly wish for a start better than racing to 305 for 4 at the end of the first day. True, the lower order and the tail capitulated. As the likes of Michael Slater, Shane Warne and the rest kept repeating, an enormous difference between the two sides is that the Aussie bowlers are significantly quicker, and on the WACA wicket it is rather difficult for the English tail to negotiate the short balls bowled at them by the fast men. At the same time, 403 is a rather formidable score by normal cricketing standards, and there were reasons for the visitors to feel just a little upbeat.
But then they ran into the best batsman in the world, with all the incredible resources of run-making at his disposal. And suddenly, like the middle distance runner who finds that his best pace only results in his falling further behind, Joe Root’s men discovered that their laudable first innings effort ultimately boiled down to staring down the habitual barrel with a degree of certainty that can be unnerving in a sporting contest.
By the afternoon session of the Third Day, Steve Smith had been piling runs with a measure of inevitability earmarked for the absolute greatest batsmen across times (read Don Bradman, Jack Hobbs and a few others). The ease and definiteness with which he scores his runs in the current day borders on disbelief, even ridiculousness. The best-laid plans and the best set fields are of no use. The technique may raise those unconvinced eyebrows, but the results are eerie. This is the fourth calendar year in succession that he has scored over 1000 runs. At one point of time, it used to be the highlight of a player’s career to do so even once. He has played 59 Tests for his 5700-plus runs and in the last 50 Tests, he averages over 70.
No one knows how to stop this phenomenon. No one knows how to counter his atrocious technique. Root and his men are no exception.
Thus, even a total of 400-plus, a safe score just a couple of decades earlier in the game, is just not good enough. Smith is a run-machine built with all the necessary nuts and bolts to rattle off huge scores with monotonous regularity in modern day cricket. It does seem that with this man batting in the Australian side, perhaps no score is big or secure enough.
What Smith’s presence also does to the side is provided an immensely reassuring plinth on which other innings can take shape and burgeon without being encumbered by the concerns of volatility. With one end secured by the Smith presence, the other batsmen can play with a freedom of expression seldom available to performers in the tough world of Test cricket. Mitchell Marsh’s blistering drives and audacious pulls, and the overall confidence with which he played one of the most sparkling innings of the series was clearly essayed on that solid platform of reassurance constructed by Smith.
The end result is that after a day and a bit of dominating the proceedings, England find themselves in the familiar position of unconditional surrender at the end of Day Three. A huge deficit bears down on them, and enormous chunks of time left in the game. Winning is an option almost taken out of the equation, and with a hit and miss, blow hot blow cold batting line up without any hint of consistency, and a lower order that has capitulated with an almost predestined sequence of events, England is well and truly with their backs to the wall. 549 for 4 is not really a comforting score when you are at the receiving end.
The attitude of the Australian batsmen in the final hour of the day is even more ominous. Smith is there on 229, Marsh on 181, the partnership is 301 … but they approached the last hour with discretion, without any inclination to go after the bowling needlessly. The objective is quite evident to carry on the saga of scoring big and bat England completely out of the match, perhaps accelerating when the tourists are well and truly on their knees after more than a day of the futile leather hunt.
There is still the contest-loving Test match romantic who wishes that there will be a statement from Alastair Cook in his 150th Test match, but the situation looks bleak for both England and their supporters. And it is simply because Steve Smith refuses to stop making runs.