Smith shines again as openers fall to new low
Australia’s star batter again defies early wickets with another match-defining innings as England turn to their Headingley hero once more
Andrew Ramsey at Old Trafford
8 September 2019, 07:33 AM AEST
On the eve of the opening Ashes Test at Edgbaston, back when it was summer and England were still aglow at the World Cup triumph, their skipper Joe Root made a couple of significant observations about the campaign ahead.
He would bat at No.3 for his team after a stint at No.4, he announced, because "the opportunity to make really big scores comes from the top three".
Root was also asked about England's plans for Steve Smith, whose capacity to return successfully to Test cricket after more than a year on the sidelines was then unknown but who was expected to resume his No.4 role for Australia.
He noted that Smith's successes in the previous Ashes battle in the UK in 2015 came on pitches that were true, and when Australia were able to put together partnerships at the top of the order that saw the shine largely removed from the new ball.
"When it moved it around, it looked slightly different," Root observed.
With Australia once more within touching distance of retaining the Ashes, having lost the similar opportunity they had worked hard to create in the preceding Test at Headingley, Root's musings have come more sharply into the focus that hindsight allows.
In the wake of his second golden duck in as many Tests, which he recorded at Old Trafford on Saturday night, Root can ruefully reflect that his shift up the batting order has brought little other than frustration.
Certainly, his return of 247 runs at an average of 30.87 from eight innings and with a top score of 77 (in his team's history-making chase at Headingley) does not include the "really big score" he had envisaged.
By comparison, which is clearly unfair to any current player given the benchmarks Smith continues to lay down, the former Australia skipper has plundered 671 runs at 134.20 with three centuries (including a double-hundred).
A bounty that's been reaped despite missing three innings, and having no involvement whatsoever in the Test match that Australia ultimately lost.
But perhaps the most confronting factoid within the reams of history being written by the Ashes' most dominant batter since Bradman, is that Root has gotten exactly what he hoped for.
In that his new-ball bowlers Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer (after James Anderson hobbled out of the series having delivered just four overs) have ensured Smith is routinely at the wicket when the ball is new.
And as their record against Australia's opening batters clearly shows, is 'moving around' as per the plan.
In the opening Test in Birmingham, Smith walked out to bat in the eighth over (with the score 2-17), and then again in the 10th over (2-27).
At Lord's, where he was ultimately struck on the neck and forced out of the second innings and the subsequent match, it was not until the 23rd over (2-60).
But the ball has been almost pristine and the fast bowlers only just into their work at Old Trafford when Smith appeared both times within the seventh over with his team teetering at 2-28 and 2-16.
Yet his lowest contribution – 82 in the second dig at Old Trafford on Saturday that ended with him holing out to the deep chasing declaration runs – exceeds Root's highest, even though the pair have found themselves in remarkably similar situations each time they've begun batting.
"I think when it is tough, you want your experienced players to step up," Smith said at the close of day four, which sees Australia needing eight wickets to retain the Ashes and England a further 365 runs to win, or 98 overs to draw.
"I've played quite a lot of cricket now, so I like to get into those situations and be the one to take the team through."
There's no arguing that it's been tough, as it has been for Root who has yet to go to the wicket with more than 25 runs on the team scorecard, including the first innings at Old Trafford where he batted at No.4 behind nightwatchman Craig Overton.
But not since the barren days of the World Series Cricket split in the late 1970s have Australia's men's team had to recover from such a string of sub-par opening partnerships.
In the eight innings of this Ashes campaign thus far, David Warner and his opening allies – initially Cameron Bancroft, then Marcus Harris – have averaged 7.75 for the first wicket with a best stand of 13.
The only previous Test series in which Australia have recorded eight opening partnerships of 15 or less was the six-Test Ashes summer of 1978-79, when most of the first-choice players were turning out for Kerry Packer's rival product.
Even then, several of those failures were self-inflicted due to the fraught running between wickets that Graeme Wood and Rick Darling specialised in.
And they were not eight sub-15 efforts on the trot, broken as they were by stands of 68 and 55 in the third match at the MCG, and 38 in the fourth at Sydney.
The fact that neither team has been able to lay down a foundation against the new-ball not only says much about the terms on which this series has been fought, it speaks volumes for the manner in which Smith has towered over it.
"It's been tough with the new ball, for both sides," Smith acknowledged on Saturday evening.
"The ball's probably done the most when it's new, and when it's a bit softer it doesn't do quite as much so it gets a bit easier.
"They (England) have bowled pretty well with the new ball, and I think they're particularly good bowlers to left-handed batters, both Broad and Archer."
It's significant that Australia's only batting century-makers for the series to date – Smith and Matthew Wade – fashioned the fifth-wicket partnership on Saturday that put their team in the ascendancy from a tricky position.
Now, with England opener Rory Burns dismissed in Pat Cummins' first over of the second innings – before the home team had posted a run – allrounder Ben Stokes is the wicket that stands most formidably between Australia and retaining the Ashes.
Stokes is the only other England batter to have reached three figures during this campaign, having achieved it both times when batting in the back half of matches at Lord's and Leeds.
While England coach Trevor Bayliss did not mention Stokes by name, he is clearly the man upon whom the host nations' hopes of keeping the series alive – or perhaps even somehow stealing a 2-1 lead – heavily rest on Sunday.
“It's a big challenge, but we've got two guys out there (not out batters Joe Denly and Jason Roy) who are very good players," Bayliss said.
"We've certainly got some players in the sheds who can make hundreds and it'll take a couple of our guys to make good hundreds.
"But as we saw in the last Test, anything is possible."
If the implausible is to happen again, it will take someone batting outside the top three to make that "really big score" of which Root originally spoke.
Which, as Smith and Stokes have shown, is where the batting strength for these Ashes rivals truly resides.
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