Mark Nicholas

Smith's innings spoke of the beauty and power of human reform

He has said that his year out of the game made him resolve to make up for lost time. He began that mission in earnest against England

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
When the end came, it came painfully and quickly. God only knows the collateral damage. What we saw was the crumbling face of an England team that had the match in its hands after three hours and lost it, in a flurry of falling wickets four days later. The blokes who won could barely believe the spin of the narrative. By the look of the victory march, the celebrations will take them to within an inch of their lives. Australia deserved the victory for the will in their cricket; for batting longer and faster overall; for bowling harder, faster, and for turning the ball greater distances and with more accuracy. There was another reason, of course, in the form of the fellow who made 286 runs in the match. They came in their tens of thousands to abuse him but by the end could only applaud, before wandering up the Pershore Road muttering their approval.
Two batsmen
Steve Smith doesn't sleep well. The night before the match he managed barely a wink; on the third evening, and 46 not out, he tossed and turned like an insomniac. On both the days that followed he finished with 140-odd, the adrenaline coursing through his veins as if he were a prizefighter. Smith's cricket has always been a thing of near frightening intensity, not more than life itself but not far from it. Even Sir Donald Bradman didn't make two hundreds in the same Ashes match, though he had an excuse, so often did he make the 200s and 300s that rendered a second dig unnecessary.
Like Bradman, Smith reduces bowlers to a forlorn state of hopelessness. Partly this is because of the infuriating unorthodoxy but also because of the powers of his concentration and the uncanny ability to read the bowlers' minds. Bradman looped the bat out to second slip and then back down the line before stepping back and pulling balls through midwicket that most other batsmen blocked on the front foot. This forced them to overpitch, so he came forward, as if psychic, to flick and drive. We know that Smith likes to stay back and work the ball off his stumps, goading the bowler to aim at them when the agreed plan is to do anything but. If the speed of an eye's response could be measured, these two remarkable Australians would surely register among the fastest of all time.
When interviewed during the last week, Smith has said there were times during the past year when he wondered if he wanted to play cricket again. This proves how long shock lingers in the system. My guess is that he wanted the game in his life all right but couldn't be sure the game wanted him, such was the torture of public disapproval. It is possible that the captaincy of Australia did him no favours; in fact, to take that a stage further, possible that cricket had denied him the chance to turn from boy to man in the natural way of human development. It was as if he had jumped the gun on life. Cricket's bubble has the capacity to shut out the world, creating players who know no better than to succeed at any cost. The charm of cricket is less the success than the journey to achieve it. A wrong turn on the way can lead to disaster, as we saw in Cape Town.
A friend of mine, who analyses sport and its players with a forensic eye, says he finds it hard to appreciate the batting of "a man who has more than just bent the rules". An alternative view might be that lessons learnt from the unhappy series of events in Cape Town in late March 2018, have made Smith the man he might have been had cricket not so overwhelmed him in the years between teenage prodigy and grown-up superstar. Asked if he had become a better player after a year in the wilderness, Smith answered that not having the game in his life had allowed him to appreciate it more, and at the same time made him resolve to make up for lost time.
It just so happens that on a slow, dry pitch he began that mission against England. There was a beauty to these innings, the beauty and power of human reform. The slowness in the pitch suited that unique Smith method, and the early loss of James Anderson's probing late swing was a mighty bonus in its application. One or both of extra pace and very late movement from a full length are needed to dismiss Smith. Dale Steyn has both, and consequently had his number for a while; Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel have asked him awkward questions that are not always satisfactorily answered. Smith's record is absurdly good against England and even better versus New Zealand. Against India it is stratospheric. Of the sides against whom he has played a relevant number of innings, it is only South Africa that can boast a continued impression.
Next up is Lord's, where Smith made 215 the last time he walked to the wicket in an Ashes match. England must pick both Jofra Archer and Sam Curran and hope that a sprinkling of their boyish stardust lifts spirits and provides early breakthroughs. The man they are up against knows no fatigue in batting, only opportunity, and delights in the sadistic dissection of those who stand in his way. Bradman made 974 runs in the Ashes series of 1930. Almost 90 years later, Smith has the ambition and desire to push him close.
No less an innings than either of those by Smith was the one played by Rory Burns, whose public trial, especially after the Ireland Test, bordered on the cruel. We were all guilty, showing little faith in Burns' character and applying no relevance to a consistent first-class career. Probably he batted better than even he thought he might, and he rode his luck of course, like all good sportsmen do. The margins between success and failure are small - in the form of a coat of varnish on the edge of his bat time after time in this case - and so our judgements are inevitably open to ridicule. Having said that, next to no one outside of the selectors and his family would have picked Burns to play at Edgbaston. It is just that we were all wrong.
The spinners
Spinners are lonely folk, expected to win matches the moment conditions are suitable and most especially as four- and five-day matches move towards their conclusion. Many fail themselves and therefore their mates too, the pressure of such expectation simply becoming too much. Of them all, none relished the fourth-innings challenge more than Shane Warne, and few have matched his consistent ability to do the business. Nathan Lyon now has 352 Test match wickets, a remarkable tally for a man who, not so long ago, was an assistant groundsman at Adelaide Oval. Lyon is an accurate and increasingly hard spinner of the cricket ball; his overspin creates a nice loop and some extra bounce; his sidespin is a living nightmare for left-handers, who fall before him at pretty much the moment the captain throws him the ball. England have a plethora of left-handers and there was an inevitability to the order of things yesterday, so dry and worn was the pitch.
From August 1 last year to the same date this year, Moeen Ali has been the leading wicket-taker in the world. He has taken 48 wickets at 25 in that period - staggering figures indeed. Yet he failed to land more than a few balls in the same place. He was played with ease by Smith and without headaches by the two left-handers, Travis Head and Matthew Wade, who most helped the sadistic Smith with his work. Moeen's confidence is shot, as indicated by nervy, indecisive batting and the reluctance to follow through with his bowling action. He who "puts it there" rather than "bowls it" will not prosper at this high level of performance. The contrast between these two men defines the match almost as much as Smith's batting did.
The coincidence
At Edgbaston in 2005, during the Australian warm-up before play, Glenn McGrath trod on a cricket ball, damaged his ankle and was out of the match before a round was fired. Ricky Ponting still sent England in to bat and watched, aghast, as Marcus Trescothick led the charge to 407 in the day. From there came a narrow and famous victory.
Last Thurday morning Anderson bowed out of the match after four overs, the injured calf muscle not ready after all. Selecting him without him having played a competitive match to prove fitness was a mistake. These are the two best seam bowlers for each country in the modern era of the game. Playing without them proved too difficult. The cricketing gods work as mysteriously as their brothers and sisters who have a wider brief.
The future… bright for Australia and worrying for England. Question marks surround too many of the players for comfort - Joe Denly, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen will watch the media spaces with trepidation. Archer and Curran are givens for Lord's - or should be - while Ben Foakes remains an attractive option. The slope at the old ground is to Mitchell Starc's liking and he may well replace one of James Pattinson or Peter Siddle. Cameron Bancroft will hang on for now but has Marcus Harris treading on his toes.
The personnel are one thing, the mindsets another. Australia look organised and driven, rid finally of Cape Town's blushes. In contrast, one or two of the England players look lost in a World Cup world of bright memory and dark confusion - such a pinnacle reached, what else is there? Usually the Ashes overrules everything but perhaps not this time, when the nature of that day at Lord's on July 14 and its extraordinary denouement lingers in the way of a mind game that is not easily understood or unravelled.
The bookies, both professional and amateur, will have the Australians strong favourites for Lord's. Only the strongest examples of character and some free-spirited displays of skill can confound them. There is no time like the present to show them who you are deep down.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK