Steven Smith was faffing and fidgeting, fiddling with his thigh pad, drawing out lines in his crease at various points perpendicular to his leg stump, and because it was the first appearance with a bat this summer there were some muffled boos, as if to suggest this was gamesmanship.
It was just his usual weirdness, actually – as those more acquainted with his ways all know. Smith is perhaps the twitchiest man at a crease we’ve seen since the days when Derek Randall kept house out in the middle and certainly the weirdest batsman to be No 1 in the world. His idiosyncrasies – tinkering, touching and tidying his equipment and compulsively holding out his bat in front of him horizontally, face down, when a defensive shot has just been completed – are endearing to any who look for the light and shade of sport. Eccentricity and individuals like this are not so terribly common in the text book world of elite performance, with its many beautiful people.
It felt a little sacrilegious to nurture some furtive hopes for this player, especially one described by an Australian as “unconquerable” as he walked out to bat. But the story of Steven Smith can get you that way. He’s the batsman who was told he was going to be a Test leg-spinner and whose 2010 Ashes within these shores were so horrible that he was sent into exile from Test cricket for two years. His Oval century was forgotten almost as soon as it was compiled, because England had offered up someone even more unfortunate, Simon Kerrigan – now exiled in perpetuity – to bowl to him.
So Smith went away, forgot about leg-spin, became a batsman and with a grip on his international future looking as shaky as the grip he persists with – his hand rotated so far clockwise that elite performance coaches shudder – he turned himself into a batsman of Bradmanesque proportions. His averages steepled up to such a level that a century has now become a foregone conclusion when Smith is set. (His Test average in those innings in which he has reached 30 stood at 140 before this innings.) In his first 14 Tests, Smith scored 825 runs at an average of 33.
In the subsequent 14, he accumulated 1,762 at 83.9. The man who walked out beneath a high Cardiff sun was an Everyman for this sport; living proof that where there’s life there’s hope, however deep your nonconformity.
The aura of fascination deepened a little more when he departed again for 33 from 56 balls, 78 minutes later, leaving unanswered for another day the question of whether his habits at the crease – walking across from leg to off – really can survive a place and a Duke ball like this. It was Stuart Broad who took the calculated risk of suggesting before this series that Smith’s technique made him a weak link. They like to say that England is the hardest place in the world to occupy the No 3 berth.
Alastair Cook and Co were said to have “plans” for him. It’s safe to say they didn’t include the manner in which Cook came close to helping Jimmy Anderson take Smith’s wicket in the initial assault on him. An edge towards Cook in the gully struck the captain “amidships”, as the Aussies like to say, provoking an understandably public form of agony for the Englishman.
The Australian wrestled with a more subconscious difficulty, shuffling over to deal with the consistent line outside off-stump with which Anderson and Mark Wood purposefully tested him. A shorter, wider ball he chased and a lofted square drive flirted with Moeen Ali at point before rattling on to the boundary. A short ball from Wood thudded into his stomach when the attempted pull shot had been designed to reach some place else. An inside edge flew over the stumps and down to the leg-side boundary.
This was not the aura of the man who has not long beaten Bradman’s record for the total runs scored in an Indian series – 769 at an average of 128, including four consecutive centuries. It was when Smith subsequently dispatched Moeen for three fours in four balls – the first of those an object of particular beauty; batsman stepping forward to drive straight between bowler and stumps – that you first sensed the presence of greatness. The worst of the exchanges seemed to have been absorbed for the 26-year-old – a sure sign of great batsmanship as well as a great batsman.
But the dismissal, horrible and undignified, came soon after: Smith soft-shoe shuffling across and down the wicket to the spinner, Moeen recalibrating his delivery to look for leg stump and Smith, readjusting to defend against the stumping, collapsing into an unbalanced tangle as he thrust bat and pad at the ball. He poked a leading edge at Cook, who had recovered to pounce.
The manner of this departure will have been enough to raise some English belief that the man who arrived here as Australia’s newly cherished batsman is more mortal than an almighty average of 102 in the past year actually suggests. They will hope that what they are witnessing might be a shuffler of the Jonathan Trott and Gary Ballance variety. They will want to revisit footage of the extraordinary ball Andrew Flintoff sent around Brian Lara’s legs at Old Trafford 11 years ago. (The West Indian was also a compulsive shuffler when the dark night of his soul took him.) Smith did not look like a shuffler of the Shivnarine Chanderpaul variety. The West Indian looks unbalanced as the bowler approaches but is poised when the ball arrives.
Such eccentricities are awaited the length and breadth of Britain across the course of the next two months. Many will hope to see the Smith star descend once again. Those who know how it feels to fall short of sporting perfection, to fail and seek salvation, will hope that his early struggle will broaden into something far bigger.
Best of the day
A pulled four by Moeen Ali off Mitchell Johnson showed how much the pitch had become neutral and how hard Moeen has worked on his weakness to the bouncer.
Looking vulnerable to Steve Smith’s assertiveness, Moeen saw him advance, propelled the ball down the leg side and was rewarded with a catch to a perfectly positioned short mid-on.
Stuart Broad went without demur when given out, caught at short leg to a vicious bouncer from Johnson. But replays showed the ball had been grounded and Broad, most controversial of modern Ashes players, was recalled.
Chris Rogers became the fifth batsman to make seven consecutive Test scores of at least 50 – following Everton Weekes, Andy Flower, Shiv Chanderpaul and Kumar Sangakkara – and the first to convert none into a hundred.Reuse content