The Ashes 2013
When Earth was created, some say 4.5 billion years ago, its designer didn’t have an Ashes series in mind. Everything was running to plan, then the old time zone issue threw a curve ball at the plate. In the end, clearly something had to be sacrificed in order to meet deadline and win the chance to have the mortgage paid off in full. It was handed over to the judges with one fatal design flaw. It failed to come up with the perfect solution to accommodate the entire viewing public. I mean come on, one nation sleeps while the other African-enhanced conglomerate swills its warm beer? The balance is askew. Sleep deprivation is the result for Australian viewers. Only the brave or senseless rebel against the cards they’re dealt. Or, there’s that other pocket of cricket lunatics. The patient.
In Steve Smith, we’ve learnt to be patient. We’ve had to be. His talent is too blatantly obvious to bin. It was evident when he was dominating Sydney grade cricket as a precocious teenager. There when he turned the inaugural Champions League T20 final on its head with both bat and ball. In patches, more so of late, he’s shown us what he’s capable of with the bat at test level. Not so with the ball. Until now.
The Smith road to test cricket solidity has been bumpy and unique. Australia’s fascination with wrist spin saw him elevated to frontline spinner status ahead of his time. He took three wickets on debut as well. Imran Farhat, not a bad first scalp. But the pressure of carrying the slow-bowling duties in a re-developing attack was a significant load to bear. He admits himself, the skills don’t match the responsibility. Smith is a batsman who can bowl. Selectors tipped the scales and asked the young man to change his suit. They say leg-spin is the hardest craft in a bowler’s playbook to master. Even a man of Smith’s significant talent struggled to clear that height.
Now, almost three years to the day since he nailed three wickets on debut, he was back at the same ground he was handed that first baggy green cap. The 2013 model is a vastly different beast. No longer the bowler who lengthened the batting order at number eight, Smith is a frontline batsman who commands a spot in the top order. Fortunately, he can still bowl a bit.
Smith is a respectful, softly spoken, polite and well-mannered young man. Sure, there’s an acid tongue when the caged lion is let loose with white line fever. But show me an athlete who doesn’t have one of those within the confines of the competitive arena. For the most part, he’s shy around new company. Never the centre of attention in a group. Timid some might say. Perhaps battle-scarred by a brief career punctuated by turnstile selection and a chorus of criticism unfairly thrown his way. But he’s a measured, analytical thinker with cricketing maturity beyond his years. A leader of men with that ability to bring a sprinkling of magic to the contest. Armed with confidence he takes on a different persona. Michael Clarke knows it too. He sees a lot of himself in Smith. Small doses. Careful man management. With the right handling, Smith is capable of bring that x-factor to a contest that only few others can.
And so, with shadows starting to form on the hallowed Lord’s square, Clarke turned to his enigmatic, now part-time leggie to break a century partnership that had eliminated Australia’s commanding start to the test. With Smith’s bowling, a captain must take the good with the bad. For every few rocks, you’ll find a diamond. And so it was that a fifth ball full toss that found the mid-wicket fence was followed by a fizzing leg-break that made that all-important break-through. Curve, dip, spin. It’s the ideal leg-spin formula perfected by only a rare few. But in front of the man who created the leggie legacy, Shane Warne, in town on commentary duties, Smith found a way to end the sublime innings of Ian Bell.
Some cricketers have a way of creating their own luck. Smith is one of them. His third over started with a full toss that Jonny Bairstow managed to crunch back into the bowler’s hands. Low and to his left, it was a significant scalp that evened up honours for the day. But it was the wicket of Matt Prior that proved the most damaging of them all. A skidding flipper that gathered pace off the driest of pitches had the England wicket-keeper top-edging a cut shot into the mitts of Brad Haddin. It was a sharp grab from the Aussie gloveman, the sort he could have been forgiven for grassing. Sometimes they land where you want them to.
Six overs. 3 for 18. The best figures of Smith’s largely forgettable test bowling career to date. He was thrown the ball in hope. Clarke was rolling the dice. That Smith delivered on cue speaks volumes about the strides both men have made. Smith will take the plaudits, but day one of this test was a triumph for Clarke’s leadership. Cricket doesn’t wait for anyone. Captains, at the crest of the wave, can pre-empt the direction the game heads. Sometimes plans work. This was one of those days for Clarke.
In his time at the helm, Clarke has shown he’s an instinctive leader. He pulls the rein on hunch moments. Most would say that’s the hallmark of cricket’s greatest ever leaders. Besieged by press about comments he is alleged to have made about Shane Watson’s negative influence on the team, Clarke defied convention and stripped his opening bowler James Pattinson of the new ball in just the fifth over of the day. Watson was called upon. There appeared to be a sense of theatre to the move, throwing the ball to his former deputy in a moment of public solidarity at such an early stage of the match. Watson, like Smith, has that enigmatic Midas touch. With just the second ball of the over, he trapped Alistair Cook plumb in front. Clarke looked to the sky and raised his arms in the air. A moment of self-congratulatory triumph. And why not, he’d earned it. Watson earlier in the day. Smith in the twilight. Two moments of magic instigated by the skipper. Perhaps even more telling though was his removal of Watson from the attack just one over into his wicket-taking spell. Cricket is about seizing key moments. The move didn’t pay dividends. But it’s further proof sentiment won’t be standing in the way of the new winning ethic.
Less surprising. More bankable. Ryan Harris. Australia’s best bowler. A strike weapon with a tendency to self-detonate all too often. Australia must nurse Harris through the series because he’s crucial to their chances. He bowls a heavy ball. His action and wrist position allows him to generate pace from dead wickets. He’s the awkward seamer England would prefer wasn’t playing. Captains like him because he’s capable of executing plans. There’s a feeling Joe Root falls over at the crease making him susceptible to the lbw. Harris exposed it. The Australians believe Kevin Pietersen is a nicking chance early doors. Harris made it happen. World cricket has concluded Jonathan Trott is susceptible to the short-stuff. Trott enjoyed his time in the middle but it would prove his eventual undoing.
Finally, Australia got its umpire review system right. There appeared to be calm among the jury. The scattergun approach amid the excitement of an Ashes series opener was replaced by measured assessment. But not everything went Clarke’s way. Ian Bell continues to have Australia’s number. If Trent Bridge was an exercise in stubborn resistance, this was a showcase of fluency and control. Technically he is England’s best batsman. Right now, statistically he is too. His partnerships, firstly with Trott and then Bairstow, rescued what could have been a disastrous day for the hosts.
Bairstow’s run should have ended much earlier. On 21 he was bowled by Peter Siddle. The sixth time the stumps had been castled in his 14 test innings. But the umpire wanted a look at Siddle’s front foot. A millimetre saved Bairstow and maybe his test career. Another dismissal for Australia reversed by a no-ball. A schoolboy error that’s happened all too often in recent years. It’s a habit Clarke and new coach Darren Lehmann want buried for good.
Under the new regime, things will go to plan. At least that’s the best laid plan. For the most part, on day one of this test, they did. Sprinkled with a little magic. Patience is the key. And as Steve Smith showed, sometimes it’s worth the wait.