John Townsend on the Ashes: Steve Smith has right on his side as plan to stop Graeme Swann pays off
The Aussie Angle: His century marked the belated arrival of a Test batsman of substance
Thursday 22 August 2013
Steve Smith can thank Graeme Swann for the breakthrough century that announced his belated arrival as a Test batsman of substance.
Smith had fortune – and right-handedness – on his side when he survived the selectors' axe to be retained in the fifth Test team.
He was certainly fortunate that his airy first-ball swish at James Anderson on Wednesday did not provide a catch to the England cordon and a humiliating golden duck. Even the delivery that brought up his maiden Test century was clothed in golden fortune as he heaved Jonathan Trott high over the long-on boundary.
It was a brilliant, brazen bludgeoning moment in a career that has teased and tantalised while only sketching its capacity for fulfilment. Yet the muted celebrations that followed the six spoke more of Smith's relief at reaching the milestone after getting so near at Mohali and Old Trafford this year before falling with the goal beckoning.
Smith had a poor match at Chester-le-Street where he dropped a sitter in the outfield and played the most ill-conceived hoick at Stuart Broad during Australia's rapid second-innings decline. It appeared possible, likely even, that he would be cut for The Oval. Michael Clarke was asked on the eve of the match to identify the young New South Welshmen's Test attributes and responded with the faintest praise that "Smithy's greatest strength is that he can play all three forms of the game".
It was hardly a rousing endorsement and led to a further suggestion that Matthew Wade was a fine player who had "two centuries in 12 Tests" and if the team included Wade "it would be no different to if it didn't". That Wade's tons have come in two of the four Tests won by Australia in the past 16 months – a tally that exceeds every other batsman including the Michaels Clarke and Hussey – appeared to strengthen his claim to stiffen the Australian middle order.
But there was one factor not taken into account. Swann has been a hoodoo figure for Australia's left-handers throughout the series. He prised open Chris Rogers' defences five times before dismissing him again here, befuddled Usman Khawaja four times and twice snared Phil Hughes in quicksand.
Left-handers fell to the off-spinner 14 times during the first four Tests and the Australia selectors planned to hamstring Swann in this match by packing the top and middle order with right-handers. Seven were in place between the openers and No 9 Mitchell Starc to provide a stark contrast to Lord's where Swann sliced through the three left-handers employed in the top four on the way to a nine-wicket haul.
That right-handed requirement underpinned the selection of debutant James Faulkner, who while essentially a seam-bowling all-rounder, is sufficiently capable with the bat to stiffen the lower order. Faulkner threw the bat vigorously enough to clout 23 at better than a run a ball, but it will be his contribution with the ball that pays his way and indicates whether he has a future.
Australia know the home pitches to be produced later this year will have a significantly greener tinge than the arid plots dished up in England and that Swann's advantage will be reduced. That is good news for the left-handers angling for recalls, but Smith has made their task that much harder with his enthusiastic acceptance of the chance afforded him at The Oval.
He was nervy at times, particularly on the first day, but a straight six off Swann from the 10th delivery he received from the spinner, and the cool-headed blow to bring up three figures, indicated that a tough and calculating competitor co-exists with the fidgeting and frenetic batsman on display at Durham. Smith may have been lucky to play in this Test but the Australia selectors had little choice once they had drafted their Swann policy.
At a time when standing on the right side of the bat is a key element in Test selection, that has proved a most adroit decision.
John Townsend is Cricket Writer at the 'West Australian'
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