With the India v Australia series locked at one match apiece, the sides headed to Bengaluru for a match variously described as ‘the epic decider’ and ‘hmm? Is that on tonight?’
It was off his 39th delivery that Steve Smith earned his first run in the first innings of the third Test.
It was as if Smith crossed a massive landmark. He had finally got off the mark by tucking a ball off his hips past short leg against his adversary Neil Wagner.
As soon as he got to the other end, the SCG gave a prolonged roar. Smith raised a glove to perform a mock celebration and Wagner gave him a pat on the back, such has been the rivalry between Steve Smith and Neil Wagner. The left-arm seamer has managed to make the former number one Test batsman his victim four times on the trot in this series before Colin de Grandhomme got him in the final Test.
Runs have not come by smoothly for Smith this season. His strike rate of 36.13 against Pakistan and 34.13 against New Zealand is the slowest of his career so far. In fact, no other batsman since 2000 has scored slower than Smith having faced 500 balls in a home season. It represents a big dip after averaging 137.40, 72.55, 70.71, and 128.16 respectively in the home summers before the 2019-20 season.
But where did this form slump come from? The Sheffield Shield hundred prior to the summer set the wheels in motion.
While the 103 against Western Australia was the slowest knock of his career, the significance of it couldn’t be over-emphasised since it came on a slow pitch. It required the old-school cricket of grinding and putting the hard yards out in the middle.
In the Tests against Pakistan, Smith came to the crease at the end of massive partnerships. In Brisbane, Yasir Shah clattered his stumps for four when he tried to belt it through the onside.
In Adelaide, the right-hander fell to Shaheen Afridi for 36 while attempting to hoick it over midwicket. Despite his dismissal for scores rarely seen off his bat, there was little at stake.
Things were different against the Black Caps. In each of those Tests, Smith came in under pressure. And in each of those cases, one more wicket would have given the Kiwis a massive opening.
Instead, Smith stayed there, stood firm, and stemmed the blood loss along with Marnus Labuschagne. His efforts in tiring down the Kiwi bowlers was often overshadowed by the brilliance of Labuschagne, who enjoyed an unforgettable summer, amassing 896 runs at 112.
In Perth, Smith batted for 164 balls and added 132 with Labuschagne in the first innings before the first of the many short deliveries got him for 43. In Melbourne, it was a decent yet invaluable stand of 83 before he fell for 85 to a brute of a ball from Wagner.
At the SCG, it was the same story when Warner threw away his wicket before converting a promising start to something huge. Wagner greeted him with a short delivery that hit him on the gut and fired another 19 consecutive dots. From the other end, Colin de Grandhomme and after that Todd Astle did their share of work in keeping Smith scoreless. It was a riveting scene to watch. The crowd were joining it, watching the best Test batsman in the world figuring out ways to break the shackles.
On four from 48 balls, Smith shimmied down the deck and hoicked Will Somerville over wide mid-on. That is when the runs started flowing as he pounced on the erratic length from the spinners. Before tea, he raced to 41 off 62 deliveries and the partnership with Labuschagne began pegging back the visitors again. The Australian innings was starting to enter a phase similar to that of the first two Tests.
He stagnated again as he found himself on 49 for the next 17 deliveries amid another spell from Wagner. Smith brought up his 28th half-century by dabbing out to cover off de Grandhomme. The second new ball eventually got the better of him, edging an out-swinger off de Grandhomme by playing a half-hearted shot.
Despite his struggles, Smith has been putting runs on the board, which is evidence of the extraordinary player he is.
Yes, Smith has had to struggle for the runs and averaged a mere 31.75 this summer. And while it has undeniably been the summer of Marnus, Smith has still been around to weather the storm when it mattered.