Stokes tried to rally England at the start of Australia’s second innings with a football-style address, which was all very well except Smith.A dicky shoulder meant it was touch and go whether or not he bowled himself. Smith made it a moot point.
If there is a pattern in this syncopated series, the way it keeps superseding itself. What seems crucial in one session becomes incidental in the next, and then passe. Heroic exploits have a half-life of a session, a day, a week at best, eh Ben Stokes?
This very day, Starc’s morning new-ball burst was usurped by Stuart Broad’s for England in Australia’s second innings, by two Pat Cummins balls in the first over of England’s second innings in the twilight that were worth 200. The second, Joe Root’s first, castled him and has already been christened as the Root ball. It was Smith who dubbed it.
Australia’s batting order is a state of turmoil; even that, you might say, is down to Smith, if that’s not too, ahem, rough on him. Broad and Jofra Archer momentarily re-ignited the contest, reducing Australia to 4/40 the second time around and David Warner to a grimacing shambles. Broad has not only Warner’s number, but his bank account details and his passwords too.
Australia did the only thing it could; it took a Smith. For a while, wary orthodoxy reigned. Against bowlers and ball live as a grenade, Smith said he felt “vulnerable”, the way Donald Trump sometimes feels humble. It was that sort of pitch, said Smith, hard to get in on, and then hard to get out. He would know. Then, with a game to move along, he switched to that other game. Call it Smithet.
Five runs he didn’t score best exemplify it. Noticing Smith flit across his crease, leg to off, Broad fired the ball down leg, but so astray that it went through leg slip for five wides. Two deep-set fieldsmen could not reach it. All the likeliest bowling in this match has been aimed at the stumps, but now even Broad forgot.
Archer bowled speedily enough, but the way Smith played him was not so much playing with fire as toying with it. Once, Archer set him on his backside. While there, he practised an upper cut. It’s his motto: never let a good waft of the bat go by.
He made 82 and he and Matthew Wade put on 105 to put the match beyond England’s reach and buy Australian Ashes options. In the circumstances, Wade’s energetic 34 was a great innings. The circumstances were Smith.
The pitch, a new-ball minefield, became a bowling green, after an application of Smith. Root, instead of putting something back to the Australians, spent the afternoon running around shutting gates after bolted horses. He’s a good man, but perhaps also a broken man. He’s been thoroughly Smithed.
This is not meant to be flippant. This was a fourth-day pitch, with the usual vagaries. The other 12 wickets to fall on the day realised 134 runs between them. None gave their wickets away in the pursuit of a higher objective, as Smith did. They were grimly intent on survival. Eight were bowled or lbw, but not Smith. Seam bowlers reigned supreme, first, middle and last, but not over Smith.
England’s time-wasting in the last two hours of Australia’s second innings was cynical, and should have been indictable. Now that Jack Leach has free glasses for life, someone should donate the English better shoe-laces. Same old England, always … but why stoop to their level? Let’s just Smith instead. Quickly enough, the karma bus ran over Root.
For the second time in two days, Smith had triggered England’s disintegration. With 382 weighing on their backs, Rory Burns popped the second ball of the innings to cover and Root, glued to the crease, missed the third. Until now, he had averaged 100 on this ground. Now he wished only for it to open up.
For Cummins, this balanced the scales from the previous evening, when he bowled an heroic but wicket-less spell. Now he got this just desserts. He got his Smith.
Smith is the constant, in the match, in the series, in understandings and appreciations of it. Even in his absence he was a presence. At Lord’s, his proxy and protege emerged. At Headingley, his non-appearance was glaring. Restored here, he has restored Australia. If Sunday takes its anticipated course, Australia will retain the Ashes in England with a one-man batting line-up. That is Smith. That’s with a nod to Marnus Labuschagne, but he hasn’t yet won a Test match. Smith keeps winning series wholesale.
Smith. QED. Ends.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.