Gulf between Smith and Root makes all the Ashes difference

Geoff Lemon Columnist

By Geoff Lemon, Geoff Lemon is a Roar Expert

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    In Test matches, we love to look for symmetry. For England’s loss and Australia’s win at Brisbane, look no further than the two captains.

    First up, don’t be fooled by the scorecard. The eventual ten-wicket win didn’t actually reflect Australian dominance. This match could easily have gone England’s way but for a couple of key differences.

    The first was a feat of sporting genius from Smith. We overuse that word, but it genuinely applies to Australia’s captain. For consistency and volume, his feats with the bat are like few that any player has ever managed.

    The second was the line-ball stumping of Moeen Ali. England’s left-hand stylist was batting well on the fourth day with Jonny Bairstow, who only got himself out slogging for quick runs with the tail. Had they stayed together, they might have set Australia a competitive lead.

    The decision was much debated, and was both wrong and right. Right in that Moeen probably was out. Australian keeper Tim Paine said he could see a sliver of paint behind the boot, his reaction backed that up, and on the live footage it just didn’t look like Moeen would have got back.

    But it was wrong in that stumpings these days rely almost exclusively on replays, and the television was not entirely conclusive. If it had been, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    On the screen, it looked just possible there was a fraction of boot behind the line. Or impossible to swear there wasn’t. If technology is to be the avenue to deciding such dismissals, there was doubt to receive the benefit of.

    But all of that would have been redundant if not for Smith. Without him, Australia could have been shot out for 150, and England would have banked a lead of similar margins.

    Making 141 out of 328 was an absurd ratio, but the way he did it was even more so. Pure discipline, he put away every risky shot on a slow and stodgy deck that did not reward adventure.

    Steve Smith

    (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

    He waited England out, nine and a half hours of privation, a monk on a straw mattress seeing eventual nirvana through the wall of his cell.

    After that effort, despite a bowling performance of tactical brilliance that had won England ten non-Smith wickets, scores were not far off level. England had the chance to pull ahead, batting third, and put the match beyond Australia.

    If Smith had provided the archetypal captain’s knock, the response naturally fell to Joe Root. England’s leader had failed in the first innings, but had to succeed in the second.

    As luck would have it, the cricket gods gave them an almost identical challenge. Both captains bat at No.4, and both were at the crease when the fourth wicket went down. Smith had to rebuild from 4 for 76, Root from 4 for 74.

    Smith produced his epic, settling in over four and a half sessions. Root survived one and a bit.

    England’s captain did well initially, battling through a hostile ten-over period late on Day 3 and putting aside a nasty hit on the helmet from Mitchell Starc. The next day he moved on to a fluent half-century.

    But literally the ball after the milestone, and two overs short of the lunch break, Josh Hazlewood had a ball seam into the batsman and trapped him leg-before. He went that way twice in the match, and can rest assured of facing more such balls.

    Root has started to have problems with his head falling over toward the off side. According to the stat freaks at CricViz, in the past two years he has averaged 15 against balls that would have hit his stumps. Previously, he averaged 102.

    Root watchers have lamented a problem converting fifties into centuries. In the difficult world of batting, it’s a pretty good problem to have. But it does still make a difference when the team needs someone to go big. At Brisbane, England did.

    A year or two ago, there was plenty of debate about whether Root or Smith was the better player. These days, the debate is over. Smith has opened up a massive wedge of daylight ahead of England’s captain.

    Root, with four more Tests, has reached a half-century on 46 occasions. Smith has done so on 42. But Root has converted 13 of these into hundreds, where Smith has converted 21.

    Joe Root

    (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

    When Smith reached his 21st century (no fox was involved), he became the fastest to that mark behind Donald Bradman and Sunil Gavaskar. No one else in the game’s history has matched him.

    Brian Lara, Rahul Dravid, AB de Villiers, Jacques Kallis, Kumar Sangakkara – all are players who had less than half as many hundreds when they had played as many Tests as Smith.

    All the more remarkable since his first 11 Tests involved an abortive start as a leg-spinner, then finding his feet as a batsman. His first ton didn’t come until his 12th match. Since then he’s made one just about every second game.

    Over a career, very good players average four to five Test matches per century. Like every other category, the stat is blown away by Bradman, with one every 1.79 games.

    George Headley is next with 2.2, then Smith with 2.71, and Clyde Walcott with 2.93. No one else comes under 3.

    All this time, I’ve been waiting for Smith to drop off. Surely he can’t keep piling up such freakish numbers so consistently. As yet, it hasn’t happened.

    And yes, it’s probably unreasonable to expect Root to match this absurd standard. But England need something special to pull off a series win in Australia, and Root had his opportunity to produce it.

    If he wants to re-open the argument about which players are better, he has six more weeks to make his case.

    Geoff Lemon
    Geoff Lemon

    Geoff Lemon is a writer, editor and broadcaster covering sport for The Roar, The Guardian and ABC, as well as writing on politics, literature and history for a range of outlets.

    He tweets from @GeoffLemonSport.

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    The Crowd Says (62)

    • Roar Rookie

      November 29th 2017 @ 5:32am
      DJ DJ said | November 29th 2017 @ 5:32am | ! Report

      A great analysis. smith’s Challenge will be when he gets a bit older and loses a fraction of his current judgement he’ll be an lbw candidate given how he shuffles across his stumps. No sign of that now though. Go smithy !!!

      • Roar Guru

        November 29th 2017 @ 8:13am
        Chris Kettlewell said | November 29th 2017 @ 8:13am | ! Report

        I hear people say this frequently but I really don’t get it. The only way in which he’s really an LBW candidate is that he’s more likely to be LBW than bowled because he covers his stumps up. If a player starts missing straight balls as they get older they are going to get out a lot, regardless of “shuffling across”. If they shuffle across it will be LBW, if they don’t it will be bowled. But Smith’s positioning actually means that his head is right over the ball if you bowl it at the stumps and he’s in great position to get the middle of the bat on it, meaning he’s less likely to miss it.

        So yes, on the rare occasions he misses a straight one he’s more likely to be out LBW than bowled, but I don’t see that his technique is going to make him easier to get out as he gets older, even if the dismissals to missed straight balls are more often LBW than Bowled.

        • Roar Guru

          November 29th 2017 @ 8:20am
          Ryan H said | November 29th 2017 @ 8:20am | ! Report

          Yep, the great thing about Smith is that he generally hits the ball every time. Of course he becomes a pretty clear candidate for those that he misses; but it hasn’t even happened that often in his career – he is just that good he rarely misses the ball. OTOH you have Root who was dismissed twice in very similar fashion and would’ve kicked himself for such.

          One of the key differences for mine being that Australia’s gun batsman went on with it, whereas England’s didn’t. They desperately needed 100+ from Root, and you imagine fourth innings chase would’ve been made a lot more difficult if so.

          • Roar Guru

            November 29th 2017 @ 11:06am
            Chris Kettlewell said | November 29th 2017 @ 11:06am | ! Report

            Exactly, people talk about Smith as if he’s an LBW candidate, but he rarely gets out that way, while Root does plenty, but nobody talks about how his technique is going to make him a real LBW candidate as his career progresses. In reality, Smith is actually less an LBW candidate because he gets himself into a perfect position to hit the ball if it’s bowled at the stumps, so he doesn’t miss too many there. And that’s actually because of his technique, not just because he’s got a great eye and is somehow able to make up for the issues in his technique through good hand-eye coordination. There’s no way he’d be able to be so consistently good for so long, in a way few have matched in the history of cricket if it was just his great eye overcoming a poor technique rather than because he’s built an unusual, but very robust and successful technique.

            • November 29th 2017 @ 3:04pm
              Brainstrust said | November 29th 2017 @ 3:04pm | ! Report

              I find this difficult to believe, what are the actual stats.
              Smith gets out lbw and bowled quite a lot.
              You expect caught to be almost double combined bowled and lbw.
              He is at the other end of the spectrum, as opposed to a Bill Lawry.

              • November 29th 2017 @ 7:18pm
                Alex L said | November 29th 2017 @ 7:18pm | ! Report

                Smith is dismissed by LBW 15.6% and bowled 21.1%, Root is LBW 17.8% and bowled 14.9% — both figures from test matches.

            • November 29th 2017 @ 4:59pm
              Simoc said | November 29th 2017 @ 4:59pm | ! Report

              This is true. I expected Smith to start having a run of outs like every other batsmen but he is a bowlers nightmare. I think Root has more on his plate dealing with the Australian attack which is 4 strong (not 2) and the vitriolic Pommie media. But Smith seems to be the greatest batsman of the modern era along with Kohli. Kohli is classic but among the smart people India have produced and Smith is more effective in tests. And I rate Lara slightly ahead of Smith and Kohli by the end of his career with a weak team.

              • November 29th 2017 @ 8:35pm
                Freddie said | November 29th 2017 @ 8:35pm | ! Report

                The “vitriolic pommie media!” Hilarious! You may want to look at the convict equivalent – they’re the best cheerleaders the Aussies have!

              • Roar Guru

                November 30th 2017 @ 8:22am
                Chris Kettlewell said | November 30th 2017 @ 8:22am | ! Report

                Freddie, I think the point on the English media isn’t them being cheerleaders, but rather really quick to turn on England’s team if anything goes wrong.

    • November 29th 2017 @ 6:36am
      Linphoma said | November 29th 2017 @ 6:36am | ! Report

      The daddy innings I’m sure will play a part in Adelaide – whether one makes one or not, and which side is going to do it.

    • November 29th 2017 @ 6:58am
      AR said | November 29th 2017 @ 6:58am | ! Report

      Those stats sharpen Smith’s standing in the game almost beyond belief.

      Like Geoff, I am still coming to grips with just how good he is.

      Bring on Adelaide.

    • November 29th 2017 @ 8:47am
      Jeffrey Dun said | November 29th 2017 @ 8:47am | ! Report

      “Making 141 out of 328 was an absurd ratio…”.

      I can recall another similar innings from Smith this year. At Pune in the first test he scored 109 in an all out second innings total of 285. This innings was all the more meritorious when you consider he was batting on a turning deck against Jadega and Ashwin, and that India were all out for 105 and 107 respectively.

      • November 29th 2017 @ 9:00am
        Pope Paul VII said | November 29th 2017 @ 9:00am | ! Report

        A great innings but they dropped him about 5 times. At least 3 dead set sitters.

        • November 29th 2017 @ 10:57am
          Jeffrey Dun said | November 29th 2017 @ 10:57am | ! Report

          So, it wasn’t a great innings then.

          • Roar Guru

            November 29th 2017 @ 11:07am
            Chris Kettlewell said | November 29th 2017 @ 11:07am | ! Report

            He did bat well, but they certainly gave him some chances, while I’m pretty sure this was basically a chanceless innings against England. So that definitely has to cause it to rate higher.

            • November 29th 2017 @ 2:10pm
              Jeffrey Dun said | November 29th 2017 @ 2:10pm | ! Report

              “So that definitely has to cause it to rate higher.”

              I’m not sure I would judge an innings solely on the whether it was chanceless or not.

              In Pune, the pitch was turning square from the first overs and Jadega and Ashwin are lethal in those conditions.

              Survival on the GABBA pitch did not appear too difficult; however, playing shots was more problematic. The England bowling unit, in those conditions, appeared content to restrict Smith, rather than try to get him out. In any event, the England bowling unit were nowhere near as lethal in those conditions as Ashwin and Jadega were at Pune.

              I would argue that degree of difficulty needs to be taken into account. Otherwise we would be like a diving judge who rates, say, a flawless swan dive as superior to an almost flawless armstand back double-somersault with one and a half twists in the free position.

              I rate Smith’s Pune innings as better because I believe the degree of difficulty was so much greater.

              • Roar Guru

                November 29th 2017 @ 3:47pm
                Chris Kettlewell said | November 29th 2017 @ 3:47pm | ! Report

                True, but if you have a situation where a player gets a hundred, but if the opposition had held their catches they’d have been out for a low score, it gives the feeling that it’s partly down to luck, they actually made mistakes and should have been out. Some other batsmen would have been out the first mistake they made, in many cases probably to more difficult chances than some of the ones missed off Smith.

                I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a player get out to a screamer for a low score, and in the same innings another batsman has a much more straightforward chance put down on a similar score and then they go on to score a hundred. We say the first batsman failed while the second played a great innings, yet the first batsman may well have piled on a hundred if they’d had the chance to be dropped, you just never know.

                I’m not saying his Pune innings wasn’t a good one, but in order to get that he got some chances that other batsmen didn’t get.

            • November 29th 2017 @ 8:01pm
              Bib said | November 29th 2017 @ 8:01pm | ! Report

              I like Pune (and the Indian series in general, despite the loss) more purely because it silenced all those Kohli fan bois once and for all. Smith is better than Kohler. Fact.

              This Indian team has a big * against their no. 1 status. They haven’t played out side of India for 18months, and that was against the windies and before that it was Sri Lanka, then Australia where they lost despite assistance from CA road pitches. Anyway this is an argument for another day.

              • Roar Guru

                November 30th 2017 @ 8:23am
                Chris Kettlewell said | November 30th 2017 @ 8:23am | ! Report

                You’d think it should have, but unfortunately, facts don’t tend to have any bearing on the Kohli fan-boys. They are still as prevalent as ever. Just look as any comments section on ESPNCricinfo!

              • Columnist

                December 1st 2017 @ 12:00am
                Geoff Lemon said | December 1st 2017 @ 12:00am | ! Report

                Superfans are generally annoying, but sometimes (as much by coincidence as anything else) they have a point. Kohli had a slow start in Tests but these days isn’t far behind Smith in raw numbers, and has a better 50-100 conversion rate and more doubles. He also absolutely destroys the rest of the Fab Four when it comes to ODIs and T20s. Some day soon I’m hoping to do a full in-depth comparative analysis.

          • November 29th 2017 @ 12:05pm
            Pope Paul VII said | November 29th 2017 @ 12:05pm | ! Report

            Still great Jeff, just different.

            • November 29th 2017 @ 1:45pm
              Jeffrey Dun said | November 29th 2017 @ 1:45pm | ! Report

              It was certainly different Your Holiness. I don’t know how often in a test match a batsmen in a single innings scores more than half the runs scored by the 20 wickets on the other side. Smith scored 109 in the second innings, while the 20 Indian wickets scored 212 for the match.

      • Roar Guru

        November 29th 2017 @ 10:05am
        Ryan H said | November 29th 2017 @ 10:05am | ! Report

        Yep; a bit like getting 48* out of a team total of 85 last year in Hobart against South Africa

    • November 29th 2017 @ 9:11am
      paul said | November 29th 2017 @ 9:11am | ! Report

      The other context Geoff left out was the team that Smith is playing in is quite weak, batting wise, compared to others that the Laras, Sangakaras, De Villiers, etc have been involved.

      Many of these hundreds have been scored because the rest of the Australian batting has faltered, which makes his efforts even better. The question remains, how long can he continue to post these types of scores under that sort of pressure? He badly needs the rest of the lineup to help him out.

      • November 29th 2017 @ 10:53am
        Pope Paul VII said | November 29th 2017 @ 10:53am | ! Report

        Lara didn’t play in strong teams.

      • Roar Guru

        November 29th 2017 @ 11:13am
        Chris Kettlewell said | November 29th 2017 @ 11:13am | ! Report

        Agree with Pope, Lara’s career basically spanned the downfall of the West Indies. When he first joined the team they were still a really good team, but everything else was really falling apart around him. But it has to be said that it did actually get to Lara at a few points. I’m pretty sure that if he’d had a more stable situation around him he wouldn’t have gone through some of the struggles he did and likely would have had an even better overall record.

        However, there’s no way Smith is going to be in that situation. Even though he’s had to play some almost lone hands in his career, plenty have done that, Michael Clarke really carried the team on his bat through a large chunk of his captaincy. And the rest of the batting lineup around Smith is one that I think will only get better, he won’t have the demise of the team to deal with like Lara did.

        I think that he can continue to post scores under the pressure because he really seems the sort of player who thrives on it. He is very adept at working out the situation of the game, playing conditions, pitch, bowling and everything and working out what he needs to do and gets on with it. I think Bancroft may well prove to be a quality opener and strengthen up the top, hopefully Khawaja won’t be in and out and can settle in and just build a long career at number 3, and Handscomb continue to grow and we’ve got a pretty solid top 5.

    • Roar Guru

      November 29th 2017 @ 9:25am
      Will Sinclair said | November 29th 2017 @ 9:25am | ! Report

      I was at the Gabba and was lucky enough to see every ball of Smith’s innings – it was truly masterful.

      As Geoff says, Australia were on the ropes when he came to the crease. If he had not stood up, then the Aussies would have been staring a disastrous defeat right in the face.

      • November 29th 2017 @ 9:54am
        jameswm said | November 29th 2017 @ 9:54am | ! Report

        Great stuff Will – you’ll still be looking back in 10-20 years remembering the innings that won us the 1st Ashes test of the series.

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