Ashes 2019: ‘Steve Smith sends fairies and unicorns into a captain’s mind’August 5, 2019
There were points on a humid, enervating Sunday at Edgbaston when Smith was doing all the Steve Smith things he’d been doing on Thursday – flicking deliveries from outside off to hidden holes in the leg side, leaving others alone like a man fighting wasps, berating himself for some invisible fault in his display – and then doing something more devastating yet: sucking the life out of the England team, then the stands, then their supporters far beyond.
England 385 runs behind, a day of the first Ashes Test to survive. No Test team has ever got close to a fourth innings target like that here. Ten years on from the Miracle of Cardiff, England require the Great Escape of Edgbaston.
It is Smith who has fenced the new world champions in. In these moods he bats like an evil spell cast upon his opponents. First he takes their energy, then he takes their hope. He makes fine bowlers lose their line and solid fielders let the ball slip through their fingers.
He takes the mind of the opposing captain and sends in the fairies and the unicorns. Before lunch, already past his century, he looked up to see that Joe Root had stuck Jos Buttler six feet away at silly point. Stuart Broad was bowling wide of off stump. As plans go, it was like trying to crack a safe by putting a begging bowl by the hinges.
You couldn’t really blame Root. Denied his most potent bowler by injury, watching his premier spinner struggle to find rhythm and control, let alone wickets, he had tried all the sensible stuff and watched it bounce off Smith like pebbles off a tank.
Nothing could slow his relentless progress, let alone bring him to a halt. You’re meant to feel the pressure when you’re a shot away from an Ashes century. Smith had reached his off Broad with the sort of dreamy cover drive that you feel pleased with if you’ve pulled it off in the nets against a part-timer.
He broke England with his attacking and he broke them with his defence. A few runs later he killed a Chris Woakes ball outside off with both his feet pointing straight back at the bowler and his bat in front of his toes as if playing French cricket on the beach.
Woakes gave him a look that combined incredulity with resignation. How do you come up with an answer when even the question doesn’t make sense?
The statistics to this first Test have all been Smith’s. Only Don Bradman now has more Test centuries against England than Smith. Only Bradman has scored more runs in a span of 10 Ashes matches. Smith now has more Test runs in the last 16 months than Moeen Ali, and he spent 15.9 of them banned.
This series may be his too. It should logically be far too early to make that call, with four Tests still to come, but after a mere four days he is already the main plot-line and its narrator too.
Difficult though it is to make sense of it now, Australia were 122-8 on day one. That they could set England a target of 398 on day four has more to do with the 30-year-old from Sydney than anything else.
Everything England will be thinking about from this point on will be dominated by Smith, which could be seen as disrespectful towards fine players like David Warner and Pat Cummins but is really just simple maths. In a series between two evenly matched teams he is the great point of difference. Fail to stop Smith and you fail to win back the Ashes.
Maybe he will start to wobble, although his last six scores against England read 239, 76, 102 not out, 83, 144 and 142.
Maybe the pitches will start to fox him, although the next Test is at a ground where he scored a double-hundred in the last Ashes Test there.
Maybe he will be sated, although that ban seems to have given him an insatiable hunger for runs and time at the crease.
Other than that, the ideas for shifting him from the crease may have to go more leftfield still. Fire alarms. Moles. Old age.
Smith is not the first batsman in modern Ashes history to seize control of a summer. In 1989 Steve Waugh’s scores went 177, 21 not out, 173 and 92. By the time England got him out for a duck the series had gone and several of their stalwarts were facing international retirement.
In 2010, Alastair Cook did the same: 67 and 235 not out in the first Test, 148 in the second. He failed at Perth and England lost. He went big in Melbourne and Sydney and England won again.
Now it may be Smith’s turn. The favourite song of the Hollies Stand throughout this Test has been in reference to scandal that interrupted and almost ended his career: “Same old Aussies, always cheating.”
The theme of this match has instead been same old Smith, always batting. “Cry in a minute,” the Hollies have sung, glorying in Smith’s humiliation at the post Cape Town press conference, “you’re going to cry in a minute.” The tears have belonged to England’s bowlers. Smith has barely stopped grinning.
If England supporters can push the pain away for a while, think back to the glories of 2005 when a firstTest hammering was followed by the most beautiful four weeks of revenge, then Smith’s brilliance should be appreciated.
His obsessiveness is bringing the sort of rewards that obsessiveness in sport can bring. Tiger Woods had it for so long, Lewis Hamilton has it now. You win and it just makes you want to win more. You practise and you finish and you just want to practise for longer.
As the floodlights bathed Edgbaston on Sunday evening, Rory Burns and Jason Roy digging in for the duration, the Hollies changed its tune.
Stand up for the champions, came the chants. England have the World Cup. Australia have Steve Smith, and control of the match, and all that comes with it.