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Steve Smith: The man tapping on Bradman’s shoulder

Phil Walker by Phil Walker 7 minute read

Phil Walker reports on day one of the opening men’s Ashes Test at Edgbaston, where Steve Smith hit a masterful 144.

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In a distant time before cricket became wilfully unreadable, a Test team being bowled out on day one having won the toss would be busy kicking themselves. In today’s resurgent bowlers’ market, Australia will take it, and then some.

They owe their position to, initially, a rousing 88-run stand for the ninth wicket between Peter Siddle and Steve Smith, a partnership of immense and magnificent ugliness that dragged Australia from the gutter to a position from which their champion seamers would feel able to strike. And yet even after Siddle’s departure, a further 74 runs would be added, of which Nathan Lyon’s share was just 12.

We’re here again. It’s the Ashes, which means Steven Smith. His century here, a 24th in 65 Tests, was faithful to the rhythms of Virat Kohli’s masterwork at Edgbaston last summer. In early at No.4, he deferred initially to the moving ball, before marshalling the tail towards a respectable target and then opened up to career past the landmark, spraying a couple of hoicks over the ropes for a laugh. When he got there – the pocketfuls of boos and chants (“You’re a cheat and you know you are”) eventually drowned out by the applause for a master at work – Smith’s body visibly sagged, his legs almost giving way.

There is a morbid fascination to watching him bat, all those tics and fidgets working in direct incongruence to what’s going on in his mind. In one respect it’s the product of obsessiveness, unpicking the puzzles presented to him by the modern game. In another, it’s an approach as old as the game itself, before punditry, before video analysis, when cricket was an elemental pursuit, when a batsman’s sole expectation was to be there for the next ball, however that may be achieved.

It’s tempting to imagine in Smith’s batting something of the old northern professional, men of low birth and high demand bestriding the private acres of nineteenth-century England, runs for hire, everything given to the numbers. Only in the last hour of this topsy-turvy day did he start to resemble anything like the modern player, merrily taking to the skies as he moved through the gears. Eighteen months ago he bored England into submission. Much may have changed in his personal story, but the desire remains insatiable.

However one chooses to take him, this extraordinary tangle of arms, legs and searing clarity has produced a batsman with the front and record to tap Bradman on the shoulder and enquire what it’s like up there. In the last six years, across 56 Test matches, Smith averages 90 in Australia’s first innings.

England’s think tank, meanwhile, will be twitchy and irritable. They will know that they let them get away. When 35-3 slinks into 122-8, as had happened with fewer than half the scheduled overs bowled, the clean-up job should have been relatively bloodless. That Australia more than doubled their score from that position was down not just to Smith’s unique brand of genius as England’s lack of ruthlessness, exacerbated by the loss of Jimmy Anderson less than an hour into the day.

While the full scale of Anderson’s calf injury has yet to be revealed, the signs are not good. He bowled four overs in the morning, arced a handful of pearlers away from their openers, and left the field feeling “stiffness” in his right calf. He briefly returned for the latter part of the morning session before being whisked away for a scan, the last the crowd would see of him. It’s a problem that’s been bugging him for much of the summer, and he was only officially passed ‘fit’ this week. How such an assessment can be invalidated within 45 minutes of the series starting is a question for the medical staff to answer in due course.

For the first half of the day, England’s seamers were all over Australia’s flimsy top and middle orders. Stuart Broad bounded in, at home again in his natural environment, an Ashes cricketer to his bootstraps. The force of his personality persuaded Aleem Dar to raise his finger – and both batsmen to trudge off –  on two leg-before appeals that later proved erroneous. At that stage, with Chris Woakes bowling beautifully at the other end, all seemed shakily serene.

Woakes, who was not a given to play here, was the pick of the bowlers. Perhaps it’s the tidy haircut and easy smile. Or it could be the bowling action itself, so technically flawless and easy on the eye that it lacks, in its perfection, some of the devil and danger that we tend to associate with wild opening quicks. More likely, it’s the fact that he’s known as one of the game’s good guys. Either way, Woakes is the type of cricketer who creeps up on you. The type whose Test record in England, averaging 46 with the bat and 23 with the ball from 14 matches before this one, raises eyebrows among the uninitiated. With Anderson possibly crocked, Woakes now becomes the key component of Root’s attack.

The last time these teams met, in a kiln in Sydney, the England captain ended up on a drip. As the last rites were issued on that one, Root was asleep in the corner of the away dressing room, having discharged himself from hospital that morning to resume his eerie innings from the previous night. As Root lay there, dead to the world, a remorselessly attritional and spirit-crushing series would have its unimproveable metaphor. But there was a small asterisk attached to that match. Root was unbeaten in that final innings. He was down, but not quite out.

Root has since spoken a lot about what he learned, as a captain and cricketer, from those weeks in the oven. This was him last week: “You never want to be the person to lose a big series like the Ashes and it does make you that little bit more steely – it makes you desperate to go out and turn things around. As a group, we have learned a lot from it and for me, as captain, it planted the seed of how I wanted this team to look going forward.”

While the full scale of Root’s vision has yet to reveal itself, it’s doubtful that this art lover, who cites as his favourite living artist the photorealist painter Chuck Close, would be comfortable with his team’s continuing impression of Jackson Pollock’s No.5. Three times in Root’s tenure so far, all of his batsmen have exploded inside a single session – most recently against Ireland last week. The line-up is evolving week by week. The chances of the top six remaining intact by the end of the series is remote to say the least. But that is for tomorrow. This series is alive, and already we’ve seen a classic.

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