It’s said that Alexander of Macedon wept when he realised he had no more worlds to conquer. Steve Smith did not weep here, despite the occasional invitation from the Old Trafford crowd to do so. But to watch him compile his third Test double-century was to wonder whether there comes a point when a legend can be gilded no further.
To label Smith merely a modern great is now to undersell him. What we are watching here is one of the best batsmen who has ever played the game: a man who makes a historically difficult era for batting look laughably easy, a man who breaks spirits, a man who wins series on his own. Once more, England arrived at the ground with fresh legs and fresh optimism. Once more, they returned to their hotel rooms despondent and beaten.
Of course, England are not beaten yet. The loss of Joe Denly in the 10 overs before stumps was a blow, but with little of alarm in the surface, and rain forecast for Friday, getting out of the game with a draw should not be beyond them. It will take sturdy mindsets and sturdy techniques, but even if they can scarcely approximate Smith’s talent, they can at least learn from his application.
Smith’s method may look idiosyncratic, but there is a crystalline simplicity at its core: a calm demeanour, a faith in his ability, a clear plan of attack, a clear strategy in defence. Whether it was Jofra Archer’s cutters or Stuart Broad bowling round the wicket or Craig Overton digging the ball into his ribcage or Jack Leach plugging away for over after over, Smith stayed in the moment, ignored the scoreboard, and played every ball on its merits. And when the bad balls came – and of course they did, eventually – he simply eased them where the fielders were not.
For those of us on the outside, peering in, a mixture of sensations. Great Test match cricket is often a little like that: fascinating and tedious and absorbing and soporific all at once. England fans may be sick of the sight of Smith at the crease, even after missing three innings due to concussion. But they’re a warm and knowledgeable crowd here in Manchester, and as Smith raised his various milestones they rose to acclaim him, aware that this was the sort of player you tell your grandchildren you watched.
As for numbers: this was his 11th Ashes century, of which six have come in England. Or, to put it another way, Smith has scored more Ashes centuries in England than any Englishman has ever managed. He now averages 93 in the first innings of Tests, second only to Sir Donald Bradman. And even Bradman never managed to score 500 runs in three consecutive Ashes series, as Smith has done here.
Positives? Afterwards, Jonny Bairstow tried to grasp at a few. “We’ve seen him play and miss at some balls he wasn’t playing and missing earlier in the series,” he said brightly. And indeed, Smith did offer a few more chances than in his twin centuries at Edgbaston, every play and miss met with a rousing roar by the home crowd, who would sense that Smith was finally showing vulnerability, and who would invariably be wrong.
In particular, England will rue two big misses. Archer had the chance to catch him off his own bowling on 65, a tough low effort. But the real heartbreak was yet to come. On 118, Smith cut Leach to Ben Stokes at slip, yet as he walked off cursing himself, replays on the big screen showed that Leach had overstepped the popping crease by maybe a couple of millimetres.
If England felt cursed at that point, their chagrin was also partly self-inflicted. Tim Paine was dropped twice in his innings of 58, and once Smith had finally finished gorging himself, reverse-sweeping Joe Root to short third man, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon quickly set up the declaration with a partnership of 59 in eight overs. Denly looked utterly bereft in an uncomfortable 24-ball innings, ultimately offering a catch to short leg off Pat Cummins that Matthew Wade took spectacularly at the second attempt.
This is the effect of great players: they frequently inspire the mortals around them to immortal feats of their own. These two teams may be reasonably well-matched on paper: a limp top order, a fragile middle order, a decent battery of seam bowlers with a reliable spinner backing them up. England have a home crowd behind them, recent triumphs to bolster them, familiar environments to play in. But they don’t have Smith.
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