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Fallible and still sublime, Steve Smith’s legend grows

by Taha Hashim 5 minute read

Taha Hashim reports on day four of the second Ashes Test at Lord’s, where Steve Smith’s 92 – a knock interrupted by a blow to the neck – helped push Australia into a position where victory for the visitors does not appear too audacious a task.

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There’s a reason Bradman never finished with an average of 100. It’s because Test cricket is a game of men, not gods. Perfection can never be attained, just dreamt of. Eric Hollies confirmed that notion when he dismissed the great Don for a duck at The Oval in 1948, thus immortalising the figure of 99.94.

Today, Steve Smith was at ease with the world. A tuck into the leg side, a punch through the covers. Run followed run into the early afternoon. It seemed the inevitable awaited: a 26th Test hundred, his third on the bounce. He appeared infallible. He looked perfect.

Chuckles were had as Smith danced away after each ball faced, the lightsaber swishes out in full force. The customary stroll in the direction of fine leg took place, Smith muttering away at himself, forever in the admirable quest for total command over every shot off his blade.

At one stage, a delivery from Stuart Broad was left outside off stump and before the ball could reach Jonny Bairstow’s gloves, Smith let out a cut shot, seemingly in the thought of how he would be looking to torture England’s attack next.

But then came Jofra Archer after lunch. The debutant had been miserly through the morning; his eight overs in the opening session saw him concede just 10. But you felt there was a little more in the tank, a little more to give.

Smith was on 66 as Archer – finding his groove having removed Tim Paine – ran in for the final ball of the 71st over. A bouncer thudded into his forearm, and for once, Smith appeared out of sync. The physio was called for, the arm subsequently strapped, the pain evident.

The first of Archer’s next set of six made it clear that a plan was in action. He was going for Smith like no-one had gone after him in the series. Another short ball was launched, a top-edge travelling over the wicketkeeper’s head for four. A less than convincing loft towards fine leg followed the next ball, and the over finished with Smith dropping a 96mph delivery just short of short leg.

Lord’s was woken up from a game drifting into obscurity. But Smith wasn’t to be forced into submission. A packed leg-side field saw him masterfully navigate a pull shot through for four. He was going to ride the storm.

Then came Archer’s next ball, followed by silence. The ball had struck Smith on the neck and he lay down on the pitch. Forget the score, forget the battle, forget the Ashes – it was a frightening sight. The England players rushed to his attention and the medical staff of both teams followed. To see him stand up made you sigh with relief and remove fears of the worst.

He left the field to undergo tests for concussion and Archer’s pace wreaked further destruction in the meantime. According to CricViz, his average speed in the first session was 139.9 kph. In the second: 144.49 kph.

It felt ridiculous to think Smith would return, such had been the blow. But out he came after the fall of Peter Siddle. Some had the audacity to boo him. You can only help but feel sorry for those who did, for you wonder whether they possess any sense of decency.

The rest of his innings was a staggering affair: his second ball was a swat to deep midwicket for four off Chris Woakes, and he followed it with another boundary the very next ball.

His day would end on 92 in what was a worrying dismissal. A straight ball from Woakes was left alone, thudding into his pads in rather comical fashion. It was incredibly unlike Smith, whose bat usually hoovers up straight balls.

Smith walked off having engaged in one of the great Test match duels. He didn’t return to the field for the rest of the day, going to the hospital for an X-ray on his arm which showed no fracture. 

Australia were out for 250, England handed a minimal lead of eight. Pat Cummins made it feel even smaller with two quick wickets; Jason Roy is looking out of sorts as a Test opener and Joe Root isn’t faring too well, either.

Joe Denly and Rory Burns rode their luck. Denly benefitted from a drop in the slips; Burns was helped by Australia not opting for a review off the bowling of Nathan Lyon, the ball shown by Hawk-Eye to be hitting leg stump.

Australia’s bowlers were excellent, however. Peter Siddle will be running in with venomous intent for the rest of his days. A return catch off Denly was a reward for his efforts, and he gave England further cause for concern by finding Burns’ edge, Paine obliging with the catch behind.

Lyon wheeled away from the Nursery End, the rough outside off stump an appetising sight. Stokes had little idea of how to play Australia’s maestro spinner. The all-rounder and Buttler survived, England ending the day in possession of a lead of 104 with six wickets in the bag. With the hosts fully capable of collapsing with a gentle push, the prospect of an Australian victory remains.

Australia’s players should go to sleep this evening believing they have it in them to leave St John’s Wood with a 2-0 series lead in the bag. Steve Smith has given them cause to believe.

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