Thursday 22 August 2019

Smith in England's heads and going nowhere

Steve Smith celebrates after notching his second century during the opening Test against England at Edgbaston. Photo: Lindsey ParnabyAFP/Getty Images
Steve Smith celebrates after notching his second century during the opening Test against England at Edgbaston. Photo: Lindsey ParnabyAFP/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

During the World Cup at 7am one day, Australian cricket legend Ricky Ponting was disturbed by tapping in a nearby hotel room. It was Steve Smith practising his batting.

Incessant knocking has now lodged itself in England's head and will feel like torture if Smith carries on like this.

Smith's efficiency excites historians and depresses its victims. Home crowd taunts of "We've seen you cry on the telly" fall flat when England's bowlers are the ones weeping inside. Around Edgbaston yesterday you could detect Smith's persistence lowering English spirits to the point of resignation.

Smith's 142 was followed by an excellent Matthew Wade ton before James Pattinson and Pat Cummins had some fun driving England into the dirt.

If they can take 10 wickets on the final day, Australia will have gone from 122-8 in the first innings to a 1-0 lead in the five-match series with Smith at the heart of everything.

The paradox is that brilliance is unbearable when you are on the wrong end of it. More so when it looks like stretching across five Tests.

Unchased

In the stands, the fancy dress fox remained unchased by the costume hounds. The usual japes felt like too much bother. The locals sat and suffered, their jibes at Smith stripped of their capacity to wound. Another round of booing met Smith's dismissal but then a universal ovation. Jeer, applaud, jeer, applaud. What difference, in the end, would it make?

If England's followers were worn down, imagine how Joe Root's team feel.

Their sole comfort is knowing the nemesis is vulnerable in the 140s. Until then they must endure his fidgeting, his half-hourly glove changes, his mountain of runs and his extravagant, pirouetting "leaves", which Nureyev would have admired. The theatricality of Smith's batting routines is the counterpoint to his ruthlessly scientific execution, the technical accuracy of which sometimes obscures the artistry of his strokes.

The worm is in England's head. Their psyche is invaded. Smith's ubiquity is already a feature of this series after four days of one Ashes Test. When one of your bowlers (Chris Woakes) comes off the field and asks a BBC radio crew: "Do you have any ideas?" you can be sure plans for removing the finest Test batsman of his generation are running low. Root's desperation even led him to position Jos Buttler at silly point while Stuart Broad was bowling to the Aussie limpet, who has scored 1,116 runs in his past 10 Ashes innings, at an average of 139.5.

A stats fiesta followed Smith's removal from a Woakes delivery he tried to drive but nicked to Jonny Bairstow. Don Bradman comparisons were once made only tentatively, as if "The Don" belonged in a Valhalla that should never be disturbed. In almost every sport there are debates to be had about who was the greatest. In cricket, arguing about who was the finest batsman would not keep the pub chat going long.

In Australia especially, Bradman was assumed to have bequeathed unsurpassable numbers. However good his heirs, it almost suited Australian cricket to have a point of reference everyone could work from: a burnished hero and spiritual father of the game.

Now, serious Australian legends allow the Smith-Bradman comparisons to be made without storming out. Which is not the same as saying the two are equals. A connecting thread is the ability to turn obsession into something unbeatable. Modern cricket is awash with analytics. There are plans for every batsman and bowler. The miracle of Smith is he defies all attempts to find a reliable way to take his wicket. He has to make an error to give you a chance. And his whole personality is built around not allowing that opportunity.

Give him a cause, or a mission (12 months out of the game, in disgrace), and you only stoke his fires further. Taking international cricket away from Steve Smith is like depriving fish of water. His return could have turned out one of two ways. England might have found themselves bowling at a haunted, broken man, hounded by mobs and beset by shame. Doubt must have stalked him. Yet somewhere on this tour he discovered he was still the remorseless scorer he used to be, with an added dash of redemption or rebirth.

From this arises a fearsome challenge for England, who lost James Anderson after four overs and are unlikely to be able to call on him soon. In 2017-'18, Smith struck 687 and three centuries. Already this time he has 286 and two hundreds. A measure of Bradman's supremacy is that he scored 974 in the five-Test 1930 series, 758 four years later and 680 in 1946-'47. He claimed 19 Test hundreds in England compared to Smith's 10. But there is plenty of time still for Smith, who has the second highest Test average of all time and is still only 30.

Uncomfortable "watching cricket" - the desire to be out there burns too strongly - Smith defied England's desperate appeals, funky field placings, Stuart Broad's stubbornness and Moeen's Ali's frantic efforts to control his arm. The first batsman since Matthew Hayden in 2002 to score two centuries in an Ashes Test has shaped this match in his image, frazzling England's minds and laying down a threat for Lord's, Old Trafford, Headingley and the Oval.

The Ashes are a thing of many moving parts, often dominated by duos and trios but seldom won by a single messiah. Steve Waugh spoke of the trance-like state Smith is capable of attaining. In that mode, on 93, he swaggered down the pitch and shrugged dismissively at Ben Stokes, who stared, hands on hips, bemused. Wherever Smith is in his head, England cannot reach him. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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