Ashes 2015: Battle between Steve Smith and Joe Root will run and run

Smith and Australia took the upper hand on the second day of the Fifth Test

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The Independent Online

Ashes series usually mark the end of an era for one of the teams but this campaign has started a battle that should run for many years.

Steve Smith began the summer as the world’s No 1-ranked Test batsman. He has since been superseded by Joe Root, but Smith staked his claim for top spot once more with another century here on Friday. These two, plus Kane Williamson of New Zealand and India’s Virat Kohli, look ready to dominate the global scene for years to come.

At 26, Smith is two years older than Root, and has one more cap. Before this match, Smith’s Test average was 54.7, with 10 centuries (this was his 11th). Root’s numbers were similar – an average of 56.6, including eight hundreds.

In his next Test, Smith will lead Australia, following the retirement of Michael Clarke. Had Australia won this series, there is every chance Root, caught for six, would be taking the job for England. As vice-captain, his time will come. It is probable, indeed, that Root and Smith will be captains for the 2017-18 Ashes series in Australia.

Both possess a self-assurance many sportsmen would envy. After he had tormented the England bowlers on the first day at Lord’s, Smith was not afraid to throw another dart in their direction. Smith was surprised, he said, that England’s Australian coach Trevor  Bayliss had been happy for captain Alastair Cook to set defensive fields.

Root is a little more circumspect in public, but very confident behind the scenes. During his early years in the England side, the Yorkshireman was the butt of senior players’ jokes – until he told them in no uncertain terms to tone it down. Not many 22-year-olds would feel comfortable giving the hard word to strong characters like Graeme Swann and Matt Prior.

 

Kevin Pietersen spoke admiringly of how calm Root appeared on his Test debut as he walked out to join his senior team-mate in the final Test against India in Nagpur in 2012. Aside from his troubles in the back-to-back Ashes series of 2013-14, Root has looked at home ever since.

There is no doubt which of the batsmen has the more pleasing approach. Smith is all workmanlike shovelling, while Root’s range of strokes is a delight. Contrasting styles; equally effective.

It seems churlish to  question a man who has two centuries – one a double – in this series, but Smith’s batting at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, where England won easily, suggests he needs a tighter technique against the moving ball.

Root is skilful against swing and seam and solid against spin. On quicker pitches, though, he does not look so secure. Like all his team-mates, Root was undone by the Australia pace attack Down Under. It will be fascinating to see how he copes this winter, against Dale Steyn and Co, on the faster surfaces of South Africa.

The Ashes defines players’ careers, at whatever stage. For Clarke and Chris Rogers, the story ends here. For Smith and Root, it has only just begun.

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