Amid a torrent of boos and under enormous pressure, Steve Smith last night made an extraordinary comeback to Test cricket, rescuing Australia from a perilous position on day one of the Ashes.
Smith’s 144 steered Australia from 8-122 to 284 and reduced England to trying odd tactic after bizarre strategy in a desperate attempt to uproot the stubborn champion. Yet even this monumental ton couldn’t mask a feeble display by Australia’s top seven.
No James Anderson to face, a decent surface for batting and their two star runmakers back in the XI – Australia couldn’t have hoped for more favourable circumstances yesterday.
But then, instead of seeing a brand new Test series, what we witnessed was a re-run, a re-enactment, a recreation of failures past. Hard hands were prevalent, shot selection was shoddy, front pads became obstacles. Wickets tumbled like the rain Australian fans hoped would halt this debacle.
Eventually, the sky did rupture. By that stage, though, Australia had already lost eight wickets inside 53 overs after captain Tim Paine won the toss.
The keeper elected to bat, as well he should have on a dry, slow pitch that offered limited assistance to either pace or spin bowlers. There are some surfaces on which being eight for nowhere-near-enough is understandable, almost expected, such is the difficulty they pose to batsmen. This was not such a deck. Not even close. A good batting side would have expected 350 and hoped for 400.
Australia’s hope, in the end, was just to make half that, just to avoid complete embarrassment. England knew how vulnerable Australia were with the blade. That was apparent from the moment opener Cameron Bancroft marked out his guard and turned around to count one, two, three, four, five slips. Anderson had the ball.
Having dominated touring sides to a phenomenal extent in recent summers, the veteran swing bowler loomed as Australia’s biggest obstacle. Then, suddenly, a path was cleared when Anderson was forced off the field after bowling just four overs for no reward. His calf strain had flared up again.
With Moeen Ali long having laboured in the Ashes, and Ben Stokes spraying the ball, Australia needed only to quell the influence of Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes.
The pitch was not offering much lateral movement and the Dukes ball was swinging but not a disconcerting amount. All in all, this was a scenario that favoured Australia, that offered a chance for their shaky batting line-up to ease its way into the series. Instead, they squandered a gilded opportunity.
It must be said that Broad and Woakes bowled well. Very well, in fact. Broad mixed up his lengths wisely and was cunning in his use of cutters, particularly the leg variety. Woakes, meanwhile, earned some nice swing, particularly once the ball got a touch older. He cleverly held back these hooping deliveries until he felt he had batsmen where he wanted them. Then he pounced.
But Broad and Woakes were not that incredible, not that irresistible. On a sleepy surface, they should have been forced to toil longer and harder for their spoils. David Warner overbalanced. Bancroft went fishing. Khawaja copied Bancroft. Travis Head copied Warner, who also inspired Matt Wade.
Of that group, only Head looked the part. Perhaps taking inspiration from his batting partner Smith, the South Australian made a concerted effort to keep his front pad clear, to not let it become an obstruction. Finally, though, it did get in the way and he was LBW to Woakes for 35.
Australia would have hoped their skipper Tim Paine could drag them to relative safety from 5-105. Paine’s dismissal, though, was the most galling of all. Fed a half-tracker by Broad, the skipper swivelled and bunted a tame pull shot straight to deep square leg. The English bowler couldn’t believe his fortune, reacting with wide eyes and an open mouth. Australian fans the world over were mimicking Broad.
Australia did get a couple of rotten decisions. The umpires somehow managed to out-shambles the tourist’s top seven. Some people believe that you earn your luck, though, whether good or bad and that seemed about right yesterday. Australia’s one major portion of fortune was their possession of Smith. Even at 8-122 he wouldn’t relent.
The former captain didn’t take the easy route of swinging for the fences; no one would have blamed him. Smith placed trust in Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon. Together with their senior partner that pair showed up the top seven and forged two partnerships that have vaulted Australia back into this Test.
With the bat, Siddle was equal parts gritty and adept. Come to think of it, that description fit Smith, too, for the most part. While, at the end of his innings, he began to time the ball crisply, for a long while he was searching for rhythm, hunting for that familiar sense of command. What he didn’t need to locate was the patience, determination and composure that are as pivotal to his enormous Test success as his rare skill.
Those three attributes were in short supply elsewhere yesterday. Once more, Smith has rescued Australia.