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First Ashes Test rests on Smith's bat

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4th August, 2019
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Regular service has resumed. Australia are back to placing their fortunes in the fidgety hands of master batsman Steve Smith, who may need to score a ton today for them to stay in the first Ashes Test.

Smith glided to 46* at stumps, accompanied by Travis Head (21*), to give Australia a lead of 34. England, meanwhile, appear not a skerrick closer to finding a weakness, a foible, a bad habit they can exploit to plug the Australian star’s torrent of runs.

In his last 10 Test innings against England, Smith has churned out 1,020 runs at 146 including five tons.

Some stats are quirky. Others are remarkable. And some trigger expletives. I will use a safe four-letter word to describe this record: Nuts.

England have tried, quite literally, everything to try to trip Smith. Short balls, full balls, wide balls, straight balls, swinging balls, cutting balls, express balls, slower balls, great balls, junk balls. What’s left? Beach balls?

The man best equipped to decode Smith is injured, with champion swing bowler James Anderson not expected to bowl again in this Test.

Reduced to three specialist bowlers on a sleepy track, England’s chances of quelling Smith seem slim. Best, then, to just work on scything through the rest of Australia’s fragile lineup.

To be fair to Head, fragile is not an adjective that deserves to accompany his batting in this Test. He looked very assured in the first innings before being trapped lbw for 35 by a fine piece of bowling by Chris Woakes.

It was noticeable in that innings that Head was making a concerted effort to shelve the cut shot that previously had bordered on being compulsive.

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It was the same story last night as Head sought to minimise risk. For Australia someone, anyone, just needs to stick around with Smith. Head looks capable.

Steve Smith

(Photo by Visionhaus)

Earlier, Australia bowled exceptionally well to choke England in the first session, only for the hosts’ tail to haul them to a sizeable lead.

Their two fastest bowlers, Pat Cummins and James Pattinson, combined pace with precision in the opening half hour.

Then Ben Stokes, seeking to release the pressure, was sucked into slashing at a wide delivery from Cummins. Keeper Tim Paine pouched the edge and Stokes was gone for 50, having looked rock solid throughout.

After being leagues below his best on day two, Cummins found his range in this opening session. So, too, did star spinner Nathan Lyon, who also had been disappointing up to that point, bowling too straight to the right handers and lacking patience to obdurate left hander Rory Burns.

With Peter Siddle drying up the runs from the other end, Lyon produced his initial high-class spell of the Test in the first hour of play last night.

First he started troubling Jonny Bairstow with a wider line to the right hander. Then Lyon zeroed in on a perfect line to the lefties.

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Burns edged and Paine completed a very-sharp catch, before Lyon’s all-too-frequent victim Moeen Ali suffered a fatal misjudgement, shouldering arms to a delivery that pitched on off stump and then struck it.

When Bairstow slashed to first slip in the next over, giving Siddle his second wicket, England had lost 4-18. With a lead of just 16, and needing to bat last on a dry pitch, England were suddenly behind the game.

That changed over the course of the next 24 overs, during which bowling all-rounder Chris Woakes (37*) and tailender Stuart Broad (29) frustrated the Aussies.

Despite having successfully cowed Broad with bouncers in the last Ashes, Australia bowled surprisingly full to the veteran last night.

In the end Broad was undone by a Cummins short ball, but major damage already had been inflicted by he and Woakes.

Steve Smith

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

That 65-run stand looked more and more important as Australia started their second innings poorly. Playing his first first-class match in 16 months, experienced opener David Warner has looked muddled in his tactics in this Test.

In the first innings he took the unusual step of taking guard slightly outside off stump to Broad as he came around the wicket.

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Warner was also standing so far outside his crease that the square leg umpire instructed him to move back, closer to the stumps, enforcing a recently-introduced rule.

Yesterday he was again miles outside his crease but this time was standing on middle stump. All of this shifting around was of no help to Warner, who tried to shoulder arms to a Broad delivery but succeeded only in feathering the ball through to the keeper.

Then his opening partner Cameron Bancroft got himself in a tangle against spinner Moeen Ali to leave Australia reeling at 2-17.

First drop Usman Khawaja looked in prime form as he cantered to 40 from 48 balls only to cop a fine delivery from Stokes.

From there Smith and Head managed to halt England’s momentum and then build a tad of their own. We might just have a fascinating finish brewing here.

You sense, though, that this depends once more on Smith batting like a wizard.