It was a slip of the tongue, but Ricky Ponting inadvertently summed up the mood as Andrew Symonds' family and mates, from the cricket…
Australian acting captain Steve Smith has praised the performance of star bowler Mitchell Starc in Australia’s second Ashes Test win over England, describing the left-armer’s performance as ‘exceptional’.
In the absence of captain Pat Cummins and frontline quick Josh Hazlewood, Starc snared a match-high six wickets, including 4-37 in the first innings, to set the Aussies up for their final-day win.
Smith also discussed his whirlwind return to the captaincy following Cummins’ withdrawal from the Test just hours before the start, having become a COVID-19 close contact; while also commiserating with England skipper Joe Root, who is seeing pressure mount on his own captaincy as another humbling Ashes defeat in Australia looms.
Here is everything Smith said following Australia’s win at the Adelaide Oval.
On Mitchell Starc’s return to form
The Aussie bowling attack took pride of place in Smith’s assessment of the team, with the captain praising the entire attack, from spinner Nathan Lyon to inclusions Jhye Richardson and debutant Michael Neser.
However, he reserved his greatest acclaim for Starc, saying the left-armer’s performance was ‘the best I’ve seen him bowl in a while’.
“He’s a class bowler, he has been for a long time; you look at his strike rate, it’s up there with some of the best that have played Test cricket around the world,” Smith said of Starc, who has faced conjecture over his spot in the team despite taking a wicket on average every 49.3 balls in Tests – fifth-highest of any bowler to have played at least 50 Tests.
“He summed up the conditions really well: he realised it wasn’t swinging, and he was able to hit a really nice line and length and did it all game.
“I really liked the way he went about his business this week: he took complete control. He was bowling such beautiful lines and lengths, and taking the ball across the right-hander; and bowling really nicely to the lefties as well.
“He did a terrific job, created chances throughout the whole match, and continued his pink-ball form. He’s been unbelievable in pink-ball cricket, and continued that this week.
“He bowled exceptionally well and led the attack. I’m really pleased for him.”
Starc has often been criticised for bowling too many loose deliveries, with his career economy rate sitting at 3.32 runs per over. Smith says his control in Adelaide, not always a given with left-arm quicks, played a major part in his superb performance.
1st innings – 16.1 overs, 4/37
2nd innings – 27 overs, 2/43
Match figures – 43.1 overs, 6/80
Not a good Test for the ‘Starc bowls too many 4 balls’ crowd.#ashes
— Andrew Donnison (@Donno79) December 20, 2021
“The way he [Starc] was able to get the ball going across the right-hander and stay really patient on that off stump just outside off stump, was exceptional,” the acting captain said.
“For us, it’s building pressure, it’s bowling good balls consistently, and setting the right fields is important as well. I think we’ve done really well these first two Test matches.
“It’s great to be 2-0 up, but there’s still a lot of cricket to be played this series.”
On returning to the captaincy
Many thought Smith would never lead Australia again after he was sensationally sacked from the role – and suspended for 12 months – for his role in the ball-tampering saga in South Africa in early 2018.
But after being named as Cummins’ deputy following Tim Paine’s pre-series resignation, a role expected to be the most demanding vice-captaincy in Australian history, the fast bowler’s extraordinary withdrawal on match eve having become a close contact saw Smith don the blazer once more.
He described his captaincy return as having ‘brought back some old memories’, but insists he has no designs on taking the top job on a permanent basis.
“I had fun out there, but it’s Patty’s team, and I’m the vice-captain and I’ll help Patrick in any way that I can,” he said.
“That’s my job as vice-captain, and I’ll continue to hopefully lead with the bat and play some really good cricket.”
Smith also revealed he only found out about Cummins’ predicament on the first morning of the match; there was hardly any time to even get nervous.
“Not a lot of notice – I think I found out around 10 or 11am that morning… when I had two missed calls from Pat and a message from JL [Justin Langer] saying, ‘Are you awake?’ And I thought, ‘Jeez, something’s going on here, I don’t know what it is but something’s going on’,” Smith said.
“I found out the news that, unfortunately, Pat was going to be out for this game, and I was going to take charge.”
While he is content to return to the deputy role, Smith admitted to taking great pride in taking up the captaincy once again, and marking the occasion with a Test victory.
“It’s been an enjoyable week. I’ve enjoyed leading this team in Pat’s absence, and carrying on from what we started last week at the Gabba,” he said.
On the advice he’d give to Joe Root
If the Adelaide Oval was paradise for Smith, it was more like hell for his opposite number Root.
The England captain endured what can only be described as a nightmare Test; from dealing with mounting pressure over his captaincy and the make-up of the England team, to suffering repeated low blows both in the nets and in the middle, to being dismissed off the very last ball of day four to all but snuff out faint hopes of a draw.
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) December 19, 2021
With Root, who is now entering his fifth year as England captain, attracting criticism aplenty for his leadership and tactics, Smith was sympathetic when asked about the star batter’s plight.
“It’s tough captaining a team when you’re not winning games of cricket – it’s as simple as that,” Smith said.
“There’s always going to be critics out there that are going to critique your performance as a captain. I think for him, the best advice I could say is to trust yourself, back yourself and do everything you can to help your team grow and be as successful as you can be.
“Sometimes as a captain, you get outplayed by the opposition and there’s not a great deal you can do. Just reflecting and seeing what you can do better or how you can improve is always important.
“That’s part of being a player or a leader: we’ve always got to strive to be better and improve.”
When asked about why Root, who needs 159 runs at the MCG to set a new record for the highest tally in a calendar year, having yet to score a Test ton in Australia, Smith noted that the Englishman’s technique may not be suited to the steeper bounce and quicker pitches of the Antipodes.
“That’s the challenge of playing around the world; in England I think you can play with that open face and score a lot of runs behind the wicket, because the wickets don’t have that bounce and they’re a bit slower,” he said.
“You can control your hands a bit more a lot of the time. Australia does have that extra bounce.
“He did seem to play our other fast bowlers pretty well, I think Cameron Green’s the only one with that extra bit of bounce that’s been able to unsettle him a little bit outside off stump.
“He’s looked pretty good each time he’s come to the wicket, to be fair. To have got him out last night at the end of play was huge for us.
“He’s a quality player, and we’re going to have to continue to keep the pressure on him and bowl good balls consistently to him.”
From a tactical perspective, Smith hinted that his bowlers’ plan to pitch the ball up and attack the stumps, in contrast to England’s repeated short-ball approach in the first innings, was the better option.
“First innings, we made a concerted effort to try to pitch the ball a little bit fuller,” he said.
“We went for quite a few runs in that first session, but I wasn’t too disappointed with that. We were still a long way in front of the game.
“We tried to bowl a lot fuller than England did.”
On Jhye’s five-for and the Australian fast-bowling depth
After struggling in the first innings, recalled quick Jhye Richardson’s five-wicket haul in the second innings, in his first Test in nearly three years, saw him lead Australia to victory as England looked to stonewall on day five.
It was Richardson’s maiden Test five-for, and Smith said his improvement over his period out of the team, during which he was frequently plagued by shoulder injuries, was noticeable.
“What I’ve heard the last little while is how well Jhye’s bowling: he’s improved so much, his skills and what he can bring to the table,” he said.
“He’s a bit more skiddy than some of the other quicks, so he complements them really nicely for something a little bit different off the wicket.
“I’m pleased for him to get five wickets on his return to Test cricket. I’m sure he’ll take a lot of confidence out of that.”
Smith was also full of praise for Richardson’s bowling intelligence, particularly in his approach to the second innings after going wicketless in the first.
“I think he wanted to work his way up in terms of length – he wanted to start back a little bit and drive his way forward from there,” he said of Richardson’s method on days four and five.
“He’s a thinker, he thinks about the game really well, and he’s got good control of his skills… the way Jhye adapted throughout the innings was really pleasing.”
Having bowlers of the calibre of Richardson and debutant Neser on hand in the event of an emergency holds the Australian team in good stead no matter where they play, according to Smith.
“It’s nice to have not just Jhye, but that whole group of fast bowlers, who can come in and do a job at any time,” the skipper said.
“We’ve got quite a few fast bowlers coming through. We’ve got Scott Boland, who I think’s a quality bowler as well; Mark Steketee’s been around this group.
“We’ve got a really strong core of fast bowlers that can do the job whenever they’re called upon.”
On the pressure of day five
Smith’s nerves during Tests are the stuff of legend: he famously hardly sleeps during matches. But he claims he maintained confidence in his bowlers to get the job done on the final day, despite England’s best efforts to force a draw by taking it into the final session.
“I wasn’t getting nervous just yet,” Smith said of his mindset at the tea break, with the Aussies still needing two wickets.
“I still thought, we’ve got them eight down, ‘Broady’s’ [Stuart Broad] at the other end. I even felt we could have got Jos [Buttler] out the way we were going about it.
“It looked like earlier in the day, he was content to just stay at one end, and then he was trying to get up the other, and do the old four balls at one end, then get up the other end and leave Broady one.
“When it got to that point, I thought there was still enough in the wicket that if he was going to try and push at the ball or something, we might have got a nick or something. I was still pretty confident, there was still a lot of time left in the day.”
However, Smith couldn’t have predicted how Buttler would eventually fall, after a dogged 207-ball stay at the crease: treading on his own wicket off Richardson in an extraordinary way to end his rearguard.
“It was bizarre the way that wicket happened, with him stepping back on the stumps – obviously trying to get off strike that ball,” Smith said.
“Things turned out well, but I thought he played really well. Not the traditional Jos that we’ve seen in the past; he really played nicely, left really well, his defence was really good, and he gave them a bit of a sniff there for a while.”
On not bowling Cameron Green
It took until the 56th over of the final day for Smith to finally give all-rounder Cameron Green the ball, having bowled superbly in the first innings to finish with figures of 2-24.
Rumours quickly swirled that the precocious talent had suffered a mystery injury; however, speaking immediately after the match, Smith said the move was merely precautionary.
“The guys inside actually said they didn’t want him to bowl at all today – I was trying to manage his workload as much as possible,” he said.
“We’ve got to remember he’s still a young kid, he’s bowled the last two days, it’s a long series and it’s a pretty close game, Boxing Day – it’s not that long away.”
— Jon Tuxworth (@Tuxy81) December 20, 2021
While the original plan was to give the youngster a spell, Smith’s desperation for a breakthrough deep into the second session, with Buttler and Ollie Robinson defending resolutely, saw him bite the bullet and give Green the ball for a brief spell.
“I held him back for as long as I could, and then I wanted to have a little crack with him. I thought he might have been able to get the breakthrough for us when they had that partnership going,” the acting captain said.
“Ideally he wouldn’t have bowled today, but we’ve seen how good he is. He’s taken key wickets for us in the first couple of games this series. Hopefully more of that to come.”
On his own form
After an uncharacteristic failure in his only innings at the Gabba, Smith returned to the business of carving up England on days one and two in Adelaide.
Having scored only one Test century since his all-conquering 2019 Ashes series, Smith would fall just seven runs short of adding a second to that list, but says he feels ‘in a good place’.
“I felt in the lead-up to this game, I had some good hits in the nets, I felt as though I was finding some nice rhythm,” he said.
“I’m feeling in a good place. It was nice to spend a lot of time in the middle in that first innings and score a few runs.
“Hopefully that holds me in good stead for the rest of the series.”
While Smith admits COVID-19 border closures and November’s triumphant T20 World Cup campaign have made preparing for the summer difficult, he believes he and the team were still able to gain plenty out of what they were able to do.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always enjoyed the lead-up of playing a few Shield games coming into a Test series, but unfortunately for a few reasons with the World Cup and COVID that wasn’t possible this year,” he said.
“We had to make the best out of the situation: we were able to have some really good centre-wickets, try and put as much pressure on ourselves in those scenarios as possible, which was good.”
On not underestimating England
It is now officially 4000 days since England’s last win over Australia down under: Smith is the only one remaining from the team humbled by an innings at the SCG in January 2011.
However, despite the Aussies’ run of eleven victories in their last 12 Ashes Tests on home soil, Smith believes taking a series win for granted despite the 2-0 lead is a dangerous game.
“England are a good side; we haven’t really let them back into the contest yet, we’ve been in front in both games and not allowed them back into the contest. From our point of view, that’s how we want to keep it,” he said.
“We want to keep driving forward and not let England take back any momentum at all. They’re capable of playing some really good cricket, so we ought to continue working hard as a group and gelling together and playing well the rest of the series. That starts Boxing Day.
“It’s going to be a great occasion, it always is. The guys are really excited by that challenge. Hopefully we can keep that momentum we’ve created in these first two Test matches and keep moving forward.”
Australia takes a 2-0 lead!
— 7Cricket (@7Cricket) December 20, 2021
Smith admitted the lure of being part of a second 5-0 series whitewash is tempting, but says he’s resisting the urge to think too far ahead.
“We’d love to [win 5-0], but we’ll take it one game at a time at the moment. You’ve got to just keep playing and keep playing well.
“We’d love to wrap it up in Melbourne, but like I said we’re going to have to play really good cricket to do so. England are dangerous.”