Smith advice offers clue for pivotal new-ball spell
Lessons from Steve Smith – and Rory Burns – could help provide Australia’s blueprint to break the fourth Test open with the new ball on Saturday
Andrew Ramsey at Old Trafford
7 September 2019, 09:00 AM AEST
As Australia's bowling group gathers on Saturday morning in Manchester to formulate a strategy for the second new-ball just six overs away, they might want to include Steve Smith in their pre-emptive chat.
And not just because any team playing any form of cricket anywhere in the world can glean something of value from the world's top-ranked Test batter, who is rewriting the game's history while reshaping its future.
It was Smith who – before, after and quite likely during his most recent Test double-hundred - noted that as long as England's bowlers were trying to rouse him from his batting 'bubble' by aiming at his head, they were effectively reducing their chances of getting him out.
Yet, when Australia finally resumed their bowling innings on Friday after another rain-riven delay, they fell into a very similar mode of attack against England's ungainly but unyielding opener, Rory Burns.
Despite his unorthodox batting stance and the difficulties he clearly finds in dealing with short-pitched bowling aimed at his body, he has proved himself by far the most proficient and productive opening bat of this ball-dominated Ashes series.
With 323 runs at an average of 46.14, Burns has comfortably bettered the aggregate of the five other players from both teams to have tackled the new-ball – Jason Roy (57 runs at 9.5), Joe Denly (4 at 4), David Warner (79 at 11.28), Marcus Harris (40 at 13.33) and Cameron Bancroft (44 at 11).
Given that most of those openers (with the exception of recently elevated Denly) have, more often than not, been dismissed by bowlers aiming at their stumps or pads, Friday's ploy from Australia to Burns was a little surprising.
Not so much in its laudable theory, but in its heavy-handed execution.
On an Old Trafford pitch that was foreshadowed as being the quickest of the Ashes contest to date but has revealed itself to be about as bright as Manchester's early autumn weather, Australia's pacemen went bouncer happy.
In the ten-and-a-half Test matches that Burns has played to date, he has never faced as many short-pitched deliveries as he copped during Friday's innings of almost three hours (and 185 balls) in which he scored 81.
That stay included several occasions when the 29-year-old fended deliveries away from in front of his face in a manner that suggested it would eventually cost him his wicket.
But the nearest that came to happening was when Burns had already reached 77 and Pat Cummins – in the midst of a 10-over spell either side of tea that changed the day's eventual course – hit the handle of the opener's bat, only for the looping chance to fall safely.
At most other times, Burns was able to duck beneath, sway out of the line, and even unleash the odd counter-punching hook shot as an act of defiance against the unsubtle and unrelenting tactic.
"They set out pretty clearly what they wanted to do on a surface that wasn't offering masses in terms of seam movement," Burns said at the end of day three, with England 5-200 and still 297 runs adrift of Australia's first innings.
"It is probably not a bad plan but, like Steve (Smith) said, you are not worrying about your off stump too much.
"You can get in and under stuff, and bat long periods of time.
"It was a scrap, mentally challenging, but one that was quite enjoyable."
It was after Friday's tea break, by which time Burns and his skipper Joe Root had built a century partnership for the third-wicket and defied all that the Australia quicks hurled at them, that the tourists' strategy changed.
With the ball more than 50 overs old and Cummins finally getting some assistance from it, he mixed his short-pitched attack with a number of fuller deliveries and began seeing some reward.
Root was felled by a painful blow slightly above his right knee, and Burns' resistance was finally curtailed (and the partnership ended at 141) by Josh Hazlewood pitching up and angling the ball across the left-hander.
Hazlewood later acknowledged the Australia bowlers had loaded a few too many eggs into the bouncer basket in the belief that Burns would crack.
"As a general rule, we maybe did bowl a touch short during that first session (before tea) and then targeted the top of the stumps in the second session," Hazlewood said after a day in which he claimed four vital wickets.
"I think with bowling a lot of short balls to Rory Burns, you can probably get into a bad habit as well.
"To the right-handers, you definitely feel in the game if it's top-of-stumps height - getting lbw and bowled.
"So maybe that's something we'll get tomorrow."
While half of England's batting might have been removed with 98 runs still needed to avoid the prospect of following-on, it's not unreasonable to argue those wickets yet to fall represent as much of a threat as those already lost.
Certainly, Headingley hero Ben Stokes will resume on Saturday morning (weather willing) seven not out and with more runs to his name in this series than any other England batter, Burns included.
Stokes has also shown less fallibility against short-pitched bowling than most, on either side of the Ashes divide, so Australia's bowlers might want to formulate a different plan with the second new-ball than the one they that enacted in Leeds.
That was when Stokes and Jonny Bairstow (who also resumes undefeated on Saturday's resumption) first launched the counter-attack that ultimately became a history-making coup.
So it might be worthwhile for the fast-bowler collective to invite Smith into the regular pre-play pow-wow they hold before the start of each fielding session, and which Hazelwood revealed is essentially a reaffirmation session.
Smith's message would be as succinct as it's proved successful; if the opposition's fast bowlers are aiming bouncers at his head, they're not hitting his stumps, threatening his pads or creating chances for their slip fielders.
And as the record of all openers in this campaign bar Burns emphatically shows, that's the avenue of attack that has repeatedly proved most prosperous.
2019 Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
England squad: Joe Root (c), Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jack Leach, Craig Overton, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Chris Woakes.
First Test: Australia won by 251 runs at Edgbaston
Second Test: Match drawn at Lord's
Third Test: England won by one wicket at Headingley
Fourth Test: September 4-8, Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval