Smith steers Australia through taste of own medicine
Michael Clarke called it the closest Australia could go to knowing what it was like to face Mitchell Johnson at his most terrifying last summer. Wahab Riaz certainly had every member of the 35,516-strong Adelaide Oval crowd perched on the edge of their seats, not least a host of nervous Australian batsmen in the team viewing area.
It was dynamite cricket, and it could have swept many a team away - last season's victims England know that better than most. But the fact that Australia stood up to Wahab's fire and ultimately quenched it spoke strongly for their standing as World Cup favourites. Shane Watson enjoyed a helping of luck in doing so, and later Glenn Maxwell was similarly fortunate. But there was little to wonder about Steven Smith, as he produced another innings worthy of a long-term No. 3 batsman.
Australia played this match in conditions that were more or less to their measure. The Adelaide pitch was well grassed and capable of offering encouragement to pacemen, while a breezy day aided swing and also challenged batsmen to hit into it at times, a circumstance that favoured the hosts' power. These factors were all at play when Pakistan were rounded up for 213, as Josh Hazlewood's bounce and movement harvested four wickets and vindicated his inclusion.
The only risk entailed in playing on a speedy strip is that of retaliation from an opponent capable of bringing significant firepower to bear. South Africa memorably did this to Australia in Ricky Ponting's final Test match at the WACA Ground in Perth in late 2012, and this time Misbah-ul-Haq had Wahab to call on. Bristling at some of the comments tossed his way during a mis-adventurous tail-end innings, he would not only bring pace but also an angry, intimidatory bearing that many of the Australians would have found analogous to their own attack dog strut.
England's own version of the puffed out chest and the potty mouth had been exposed as empty in 2013-14 when they had nothing to match Johnson's speed, but that was not the case here. Wahab's histrionics, while extreme, recalled nothing so much as Watson's send-off to Chris Gayle in Perth in 2009, or David Warner and Brad Haddin mimicking dogs upon Faf du Plessis' second innings exit in Cape Town last year. Critically, they were backed up with bowling of high class and higher pace, bouncers used with precision and plenty of malice.
Watson bore the brunt of all this, and struggled enormously to cope with it. Had Misbah or perhaps Younis Khan been at fine leg instead of Rahat Ali, he would not have survived the spell. But the good fortune that came his way was capitalised upon, and Watson grew gradually more secure in a further sign that his move down into the middle order was correct, even if its execution looked somewhat ham-fisted only a game after he had been dropped.
"That's as good as I've faced in one-day cricket for a long time, there's no doubt about it. It probably gave us a bit of a look at what it would be like to face Mitchell Johnson throughout the Ashes," Clarke said of the passage. "Credit to Watto the way he hung in there, he had a bit of luck getting dropped at fine leg but the way he was able to get through that period and be there at the end shows his experience and he deserves a lot of credit for that.
"But if they take that catch at fine leg who knows what could have happened, it would have been a lot tighter that's for sure. There are certainly times throughout your innings you have to get through, sometimes you do, sometimes you don't. That's why I say credit to the way Watto found a way to get through that spell and get us home tonight. I thought he and Steve Smith played really well."
It was Smith more than anyone who defused the situation, playing everything Wahab served up with the calm assurance of a young man who is now indisputably the finest and most reliable batsman in the team. His straight bat and impression of having time to spare was redolent of the very best players against pace bowling, and a marked contrast not only to Watson but also Clarke, who was pinned and pouched at short leg in the midst of Wahab's spell.
Smith's move to first-drop ahead of Watson may in years to come be seen as the moment at which Australia not only found the right formula to win this World Cup, but also when the team identified that the leader of the future should also be the No. 3 batsman in the Ricky Ponting mould. Wahab simply looked half a yard slower when bowling to Smith, so assured was the younger man's movement into line.
Just as Australia's explosive batting line-up looked like it needed a more precise helmsman in the position after their defeat in Auckland, so too did Smith appear as though he needed a new challenge following a pair of slim scores at No. 5 against England and New Zealand. He has taken on added responsibility with grace and poise, whether it be the temporary captaincy commission against India or a higher spot in the batting order. By the time Smith fell lbw, Australia's period of danger had passed.
The thought of Glenn Maxwell trying his outrageous brand of batting against Wahab at top pace with plenty of runs still required does not bear too much thinking about, but thanks to Smith no-one had to. So Australia progressed, setting up a meeting with India in Sydney.
"The fact we won gives us a lot of confidence. Since the New Zealand game we've been slowly building and our cricket's slowly been improving," Clarke said. "So every win gives you momentum and confidence and this will certainly be exactly the same. India are completely different opposition to Pakistan, different strengths but different weaknesses as well. They're playing a lot better than they were at the start of the summer, and I said that leading into the World Cup that India were going to be a tough team to beat because they've spent so much time in Australia."
Steve Waugh's worry before the match was that Australia could fall out of this World Cup by presuming that in such a talented collective there would always be someone else able to step up. He would have nodded approvingly at the way Watson and Smith did not leave the task of subduing Wahab to others.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig