Weary Steve Smith is just for once unable to rise to the occasion | Geoff Lemon
In a tour match against Derbyshire before the fourth Ashes Test there was a version of Steve Smith who looked nothing like Steve Smith. The match was ostensibly his chance to get back into the batting groove after missing the third Test with concussion. But coming out to bat against part-time leg-spin from Matthew Critchley, Smith looked disdainful of the very idea of facing the stuff. He wiped full tosses through the leg side, swung hard at the field, then opened himself up like a bendy spaghetti man to hit a six over long-off, instead slicing to deep cover for 23.
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It was the opposite to the long, studious, immaculate three innings that he had played in the Tests at Edgbaston and Lord’s. As if to underline the difference between that effort against a county side and his efforts internationally, Smith walked off the field at Derby, grabbed his bag and went straight into the nets.
In his next Test outing in Manchester Smith walked to the middle and compiled nearly 300 runs in the match. But in the last innings of the fifth and final Test the version of Smith batting at the Oval started to look more like the Smith of Derby.
He came down the wicket to the spinner Jack Leach and tried a wallop down the ground, skewing the ball to land short of an onrushing fielder at long-on. He smacked another that bounced just in front of mid-off. Even when he played along the ground he was trying to hit the ball harder than he had during his remarkable run of scores in every prior innings of the series. For a batsman so demonstrative in his facial expressions, his unconscious verbalising and his body language, Smith can be read like a book. He was no longer piloting with perfect control.
England have tried placing a leg-slip through interminable hours of previous Smith innings. Whoever that man has been, he has grazed like a Jersey cow while occasionally trotting across to square-leg to stop a Smith single or fine-leg to collect a ball from the boundary, or perhaps watched the odd hook shot sail over. This time Stuart Broad bowled on Smith’s hip, he glanced in the air and Ben Stokes took a catch. After 144, 142, 92, 211, 82 and 80 Smith was out for his score at Derby: 23.The Spin: sign up and get our weekly cricket email.
Perhaps this was just Smith tired after the emotional drain of his comeback, the scrutiny, the treatment from the grandstands, the joy of his success, the relief of retaining the Ashes. He was under the weather with flu first up at the Oval and not at his fluent best despite another half-century. Perhaps it was also Smith frustrated with Australia having thrown away a match, knowing that a chase of 399 was never realistic. The player with a juggernaut record in the first innings of Tests was instead consigned to batting last.
In the end the fact that Smith was not entirely switched on for a batting challenge was the part of the day that stood out. He would almost have had to break Don Bradman’s record of 974 runs in a series to do it. Instead he finished a couple of hundred short, on 774, equal with Sunil Gavaskar’s famous debut tour to the West Indies in 1971. Only 11 times has a player scored more and only three of them from as many or fewer innings than Smith.
The player who was switched on for a batting challenge was Matthew Wade. In the news after the third day for the wrong reasons after a very vocal couple of sessions fielding at short-leg, he brought his combativeness to the crease and expressed it through his batting. From 85 for four when Smith was out Wade took over with the very patchy company of Mitchell Marsh, Tim Paine and the bowlers to come.
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Never one for backward steps, Wade got into a feisty battle with Jofra Archer in the third session, provoking some sustained and intensely fast bowling.
He took on the spinners particularly, using his feet and lashing the ball both sides of the wicket. He took on the hook shot without fear, including one from Archer for six. He whacked three boundaries in a row from Leach and even managed to get a ball to hit the spare helmet for five penalty runs.
Wade’s hundred was eventually in vain, as was always likely to be the case. But it was his second of the series and strengthened his claim for a place in Australia’s Test future. As Smith finally showed at the last gasp here, he cannot be the one to produce all of the fight all of the time. Wade’s problem will be choosing the right moments and the right kind.