Ashes 2015: Muted Smith makes runs that he can draw on in the future

The tenor of Australia's wholly improved batting performance, the precursor to the demolition job with the ball, hinged on the man it needed to

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T-shirt weather. Drinkers drinking. Our batsmen playing without the interruption of home roars every other over. Our wunderkind saluting. Our bowlers rampaging. Isn’t this the summer we signed up for when we landed on these shores?

The tenor of Australia’s wholly improved batting performance, the precursor to the demolition job with the ball, hinged on the man it needed to, in an innings he was obliged to play. It was his ugliest hundred by panels, but one that displayed the depth of character necessary for the leadership task staring him in the face.

The second new ball was negotiated by Smith in much the same way the first had been the previous morning. He took 24 balls to move off his overnight 78. While his crawl to 100 wasn’t altogether without strokeplay, it was far from fluent. The wild slash he played on 92, edging through to the ’keeper only to be recalled for some equally wild Steven Finn footwork, was one of the worst of the series in a very competitive field.

But as England learned at Lord’s when putting him down on 50, you can’t give Smith a second chance. It never should have been in doubt given the location: London is now the venue for three consecutive Smith tons, beginning with his first two years ago to the day. Smith is as at home in this city as the Thames or the Tower.

His recognition of the feat was far more modest than what we’ve become accustomed to, for in his heart he would know that these runs were needed in the Midlands, not the capital. Yet showing he could get them this way carries a broader utility, a day he can draw on time and again.

When Adam Voges fell to world-class swing, the half hour to lunch ran the risk of undermining Smith’s hours of resourcefulness. Mitchell Marsh fell the way his brother usually does, Peter Nevill was strangled and Mitchell Johnson missed an old-fashioned straight one.

But this is where Smith thrives: driving home the advantage of his own incumbency, which is exactly what he did in an even-time stand of 91 with Mitchell Starc after the break.

When Mark Waugh reached a stunning century here in 2001 he took the long handle to England and was gone 20 runs later. That’s not Smith’s style. He starts again, continues to accumulate by picking his gaps and tucking the ball around corners. He doesn’t let up. It is how he’s managed to score over 500 runs in this series, more than any other player, in effectively two hits after that double century at Lord’s.

Since that breakthrough innings at The Oval two years ago, Smith averages 139 in the first innings when he survives beyond 60 balls at the crease. His first 60 balls in this innings? A flurry of inside edges and miscued drives. But he persevered, knowing that once set he’s as immovable as the Beefeaters guarding that Tower. 

Indeed, despite all the fascination with his preference for legside play and his movement as the bowler delivers to open it up, it was an innings where 15 of his 19 boundaries came through the posh half. He did what he had to, making it work in the best tradition of pragmatic leadership.

Three hundred and ninety four minutes and 252 balls after his streakiest of beginnings, it came to an end. The BBC helpfully informed us that Smith had faced more balls than Australia had in either of their most recent two first innings. The walk from the field was more pronounced in acknowledgment than before. You sense he knew that this meant something and that next time he walked out it would be very different.

This was the final chapter of Steve Smith Part One.