Super Smith's ton secures MCG draw
Australia captain hits his 23rd Test century in defiant innings to deny England victory
Andrew Ramsey at the MCG
30 December 2017, 11:30 PM AEST
Steve Smith’s reputation as the contemporary batter for every occasion has been heightened by his 23rd Test century that, in contrast to his series-defining ton in Brisbane and crowd-engrossing double-hundred in Perth, was one of dour defiance that carried Australia to a draw.
While the only victor to emerge from the fourth Magellan Ashes Test was the MCG pitch that finished five days of combative cricket almost wholly unscathed, Smith’s seven-hour innings of 102 not out snuffed out the hopes of a stirring win that England coveted up until the tea interval.
But as the final hour approached, it was agreed that no result was possible and the game was deemed a draw with the fifth and final Test to begin in Sydney on January 4.
The visitors had entered the final day knowing it was Smith and his vice-captain David Warner who stood squarely between them and a win they had deserved for days but were unable to prosecute when it mattered.
But after Warner sacrificed his wicket in the morning session, Smith found an ally in allrounder Mitchell Marsh whose unbeaten 29 from 166 balls might yet prove even more telling in his evolution as a Test cricketer than did his breakthrough maiden century in Perth earlier this month.
Smith’s century that came from the 259th delivery he faced against a flagging England attack was not the most ponderous Test hundred the historic Test venue, host to cricket’s inaugural formal international fixture in 1877, has witnessed.
That benchmark remains with one of his distant captaincy predecessors Bill Woodfull, who in 1929 and prior to taking on the leadership, eked out 102 from 381 balls faced at the top of Australia’s first innings against England’s famed new-ball pair Harold Larwood and Maurice Tate.
But the grand old ground has seen few more uncharacteristic knocks given that it’s only a matter of week since Smith, against the same attack give or take a seamer, rattled in the fastest Test hundred of a career that is increasingly being compared to the game’s enduring yardstick – Sir Donald Bradman.
Of course, Bradman’s mastery of Australia’s Ashes rivals led to the introduction of unprecedented and unscrupulous bowling tactics to try and quell his productivity in 1932-33, a summer of even greater on and off-field acrimony than this one.
England’s attack signalled their strategy for Smith in the opening Test at Brisbane when they slowed his scoring to a crawl, which prompted the skipper to chortle before the following match in Adelaide that he was totally unfazed by that method.
Largely because he simply enjoys being out on the field with bat in hand, and if it was feasible to do so for all five days of a match than he would relish that challenge.
As it turned out, the gauntlet was thrown down to him shortly before lunch on day four when Usman Khawaja was dismissed cheaply and Australia wobbled at 2-65, 100 runs shy of forcing England to bat again and five sessions away from forcing a stalemate.
When Smith and his fellow skipper Joe Root agreed a result was no longer possible at 4.48pm, Smith stood resolute and unconquered at the crease, his only mis-stroke in that 437 minutes being a lofted pull shot that fell fortuitously between two fielders in the deep.
After Alastair Cook had batted England into a position of strength with his match-defining unbeaten 244, it was left to his team’s seam attack (in the absence of a quality spinner) to prise 10 wickets from a pitch that offered little other than frustration.
James Anderson (1-46 from 30 overs) and Stuart Broad (1-44 from 24) will rarely have returned such parsimonious bowling figures on the final day of a Test, but the glaring absence of wickets against their names effectively told the story of a dour day.
Despite toiling manfully in concert with Chris Woakes (1-62 from 26) and Tom Curran (0-53 from 20) with defensive bowling plans and field settings to ensure Australia received no gift runs, the day five pitch remained devoid of that variable bounce which is supposed to characterise the back end of a Test match.
In addition, the bowlers found no movement despite the presence of low cloud for much of the day and only rare appearances of the reverse swing upon which teams so heavily rely to consistently capture wickets at the MCG.
And when the ball did begin to shift off the straight and Australia seemed at their most vulnerable, with Anderson and Broad charging in and Mitchell Marsh freshly uncertain at the wicket, Root opted to take the second new ball which yielded significantly less benefits.
Having conceded as early as day three that the Test had slipped beyond winning, Australia had spent the final day making good their intention – which was a notable absence of intent.
In years gone by, in a dead-rubber Test match for which there was little other than ephemeral bragging rights to play for, Australia might have looked to push the game ahead and perished amid a clatter of wickets early on the final day.
But that shortcoming is one that has been addressed through various measures, including a rejigging of the points system in the JLT Sheffield Shield competition to provide incentive for teams able to fight their way back from potential defeat to pocket a draw.
While it would be a stretch to suggest the grinding pace of the game today could not have been employed by teams of the recent past, the sheer bloody-mindedness of most of the batting against a bowling attack as disciplined as it was uncompromising carried a sort of morbid appeal.
Rarely will spectators be afforded the opportunity of watching Smith and David Warner, among the most expansive of the modern global cartel of free-wheeling strokemakers, routinely play out dot balls, maiden overs and entire sessions with little discernible movement on the scoreboard.
Warner’s half-century, which arrived from 151 balls faced, is the slowest he’s fashioned in 70 Test appearances and one that’s unlikely to be reprised anytime soon.
Certainly not next week on his beloved home track at the SCG where, a year ago, he famously celebrated an incandescent century scored before the lunch interval on the opening day.
As lunch loomed on a starkly contrasting occasion in Melbourne today, Warner had taken his score from 40 (when rain foreshortened play on Friday evening) to 83, his scoring rate marginally quickened by the pair of boundaries he found off Curran and then Woakes soon after the first drinks break.
But as his innings – more lumbering ox in character than raging bull (as per his nickname) – entered its fifth hour, Warner’s tightly restrained instincts bubbled to the surface at the sight of Root taking the ball for an over of his friendly finger spin.
Root’s second delivery from around the wicket was airily flighted and cannily landed in one of the few footmarks on an MCG pitch that had weathered better than Dorian Grey’s portrait, from where it checked slightly on the surface and spun just enough.
Sufficiently, that is, to make the first full-blooded attacking shot that Warner had aimed throughout his 301-minute occupation problematic and the resulting top edge to fly high towards extra cover where James Vince completed the catch.
In doing so, Warner not only robbed himself of the chance to become the first player in more than 140 years of Test cricket to have completed centuries in each innings of a match on four occasions.
He also sent a strong message to the Australia dressing room that any thoughts of overt aggression carried with them dire risk, and from that moment on the fourth Test became an exercise in survival.
Shaun Marsh’s solitary scoring shot throughout a half-hour innings graphically illustrated that mindset, although he was robbed of a second boundary when the full toss from Root that he drove with force went no further than Alastair Cook, who stopped it painfully with his person at silly mid-off.
But when Marsh was squared up by a delivery from Stuart Broad that nipped away from the left-hander, and the magic of reverse swing seemed to have been decoded by the England seamers, Australis was suddenly at risk.
With the scoreboard showing 4-178 – a lead of only 14 runs – and the spectre of Australia’s vulnerable middle-order having to begin their individual innings against quality seam bowling and a late-swinging ball, England sniffed a consolation win.
Especially with Australia’s second day collapse of 7-67 still fresh in the minds of both teams.
But if Smith and Warner had played central roles in unfamiliar costumes, then Mitchell Marsh was unrecognisable from the brutal batter who blazed 181 from 236 balls barely a fortnight ago on the hard and fast WACA Ground.
Today he consumed more than two hours to reach 10 (with a solitary cover-driven boundary) as Australia eased their way to safety and Smith inched his way to another inevitable milestone.
And in the process, Marsh gave Australia some sense of gain from a match that ultimately delivered little else.
2017-18 International Fixtures
Magellan Ashes Series
Australia Test squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Ashton Agar, Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh, Tim Paine (wk), Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird.
England Test squad: Joe Root (c), James Anderson (vc), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Jake Ball, Gary Ballance, Stuart Broad, Alastair Cook, Mason Crane, Tom Curran, Ben Foakes, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ben Stokes, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Chris Woakes.
First Test Australia won by 10 wickets. Scorecard
Second Test Australia won by 120 runs (Day-Night). Scorecard
Third Test Australia won by an innings and 41 runs. Scorecard
Fourth Test Match drawn. Tickets
Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Scorecard
Gillette ODI Series v England
First ODI MCG, January 14. Tickets
Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Tickets
Third ODI SCG, January 21. Tickets
Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Tickets
Fifth ODI Perth Stadium, January 28. Tickets
Prime Minister's XI
PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Tickets
Gillette T20 trans-Tasman Tri-Series
First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Tickets
Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Tickets
Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Tickets
Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 14
Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16
Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18
Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21