Barely a day after Australia’s limited-overs outfit jetted home from their lengthy white-ball campaign in India last month, the full roster of centrally contracted cricketers gathered in Sydney for a round of media interviews and filming commitments.
Among the questions served up to 25 players and Bupa Support Team men’s coach Darren Lehmann – and one specifically targeted at the bowling brigade – was ‘who is the toughest person to bowl at in Australia domestic cricket and the practice nets?’.
To a man, the four who make up the nation’s current Test attack, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon, nominated their captain and top-ranked batter in the game’s elite format, Steve Smith.
Starc cited the annoyance that comes with Smith’s habitual movement across the crease as bowlers are about to release that is a trademark of his "rare technique".
Cummins spoke of the frustration he felt upon sending down what he believed to be a formidable ball only to see Smith whip it off his pads or crack it through the off-side, while Lyon noted the quickness of his captain’s hand-eye combination as a reason why he’s so proficient against spin.
Hazlewood, a man of not so many words, claimed he was simply tough to bowl at and left it at that.
So in the wake of Smith’s unbeaten 141 that stole the initiative for his team in the first Magellan Ashes Test at the Gabba today, a match in which the next-best individual score has been James Vince’s 83 for England on the opening day, it was interesting to glean the opposition verdict on how to curb the world’s best batsman.
And according to England seamer Stuart Broad, the tourists did it pretty well even though Smith completed an essentially chanceless innings with his sixth century in his past 10 Tests (his 21st overall) and would likely still be batting if he hadn’t run out of willing and able partners.
Broad revealed that England took great solace from the fact that Smith’s innings was the slowest hundred he’d posted in Test ranks, and claimed the detailed plans the visitors’ attack have formulated (under the guidance of bowling coach Shane Bond) proved a resounding success.
"He doesn’t seem to get out lbw and bowled too much," Broad said at the close of day three, noting that of the first 100 deliveries Smith faced on Friday only one of them produced an off-side scoring stroke.
"We’ve looked at all his dismissals in Australia in the past four years, I think there’s one bowled when he was on (192 against India at the MCG in 2014) trying to hit it out of the ground, and a couple of lbws when it was reversing and the (bowlers) went really full.
"A lot of the best batsmen in the world, if you look at them, they don’t miss straight balls so it’s the outside edge that’s his biggest threat.
"He’s incredibly patient but if we get a pitch with any sideways movement and a bit more pace it brings the edge into play."
Smith, who underscored his status as the world’s top-ranked Test batter with an innings that occupied more than eight and a half hours and carried Australia to a 26-run first innings lead, took an altogether different view of the tactics employed against him by England.
While acknowledging that the state of the Gabba pitch - which was sluggish and made stroke play almost impossible for the first two and half days, and meant drying up runs to coax batters into getting themselves out became the preferred bowling ploy - he was bemused by England’s blueprint.
And he senses that might be the template Joe Root’s team employs throughout the series to try and slow down the rate of scoring and the pace of the game.
"I thought they (England) were pretty defensive from the outset," Smith said tonight.
"It was almost as though they were waiting for our batters to make a mistake.
"It might be a series where boundaries are hard to come by, but if you bat for long enough and rotate the strike,then you’ll get bad balls as bowlers get tired.
"But I thought they were pretty defensive pretty early."
Upon learning of Smith’s observations, a smile befitting his surname spread across Broad’s face and he all but confirmed the Australia captain’s prognosis that the strangling tactics employed so effectively on the slow Gabba pitch will likely reappear in Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.
"Perfect," Broad beamed when he was asked for his views on Smith’s suggestion their Ashes rivals were looking to shut things down at the first sign of meaningful batting resistance.
"We know the Australians like to score quickly, if we can restrict them from scoring a lot of boundaries then we’ll have periods of taking wickets.
"We’re in a lot of control of this game after three days, it’s in our hands to bat big tomorrow and get around 250 or 300 (in front) on a final day pitch.
"We certainly didn’t want Australia’s best batsman scoring at good pace, so the less balls we can bowl at Steve Smith and the more balls we can bowl at the batsman at the other end the better for us."
What is perhaps not such sweet music to England’s ears is Smith’s frank self-assessment that he didn’t feel like he was hitting the ball with any fluency or authority during the first two and half hours of his innings yesterday.
Even though he reached stumps on day two unbeaten on 64, the 28-year-old reckoned he did not begin to feel like he was in some sort of batting form until he resumed at the crease under thick cloud on day three.
"It took me a while to get into a bit of a groove and it probably wasn’t until batting this morning, that everything felt really good," Smith said after play today.
"My feet were moving well, my head was in good positions and my hands, most importantly, felt good as well.
It’s this quest for perfection and obsessive need to constantly re-evaluate his stance, his batting grip, even the routine for changing his equipment that gets the goat of his Test teammates whether they’re bowling at him in matches or at training.
It was noticeable a couple ot times today, such as when Jake Ball got a delivery to fly off a length that caught the shoulder of Smith’s bat before falling safely to earth, causing the captain to instinctively to flick his right hand to replicate what he felt the ball had inexplicably achieved.
"He’s never out in the nets, (if he) hits it straight up (in the air) it’s somebody else’s fault," Cummins joked to cricket.com.au recently.
"So if it’s up in the air it’s ‘oh gloves, need new gloves’ or if he plays and misses he looks at the pitch, something happened in the pitch.
"We reckon that’s what makes him really good, he actually believes it in his head, so he just moves onto the next ball as though nothing’s happened."
And that’s an element no amount of England planning or spit-balling can counter.
2017-18 International Fixtures:
Magellan Ashes Series
First Test Gabba, November 23-27. Buy tickets
Second Test Adelaide Oval, December 2-6 (Day-Night). Buy tickets
Third Test WACA Ground, December 14-18. Buy tickets
Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Buy tickets
Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Buy tickets
Gillette ODI Series v England
First ODI MCG, January 14. Buy tickets
Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Buy tickets
Third ODI SCG, January 21. Buy tickets
Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Buy tickets
Fifth ODI Perth TBC, January 28. Join the ACF
Prime Minister's XI
PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Buy tickets
Gillette T20 INTL Series
First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Buy tickets
Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Buy tickets
Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Buy tickets
Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 13
Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16
Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18
Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21