Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
World Cup 2023 (1)
ICC Men's T20 World Cup Americas Region Final (2)
WC Warm-up (3)
Irani Cup (1)
It's the fourth over after Australia have elected to bat. David Warner has just been dismissed. Steven Smith bounds out at No. 3. There's a bat twirl, a series of spot jogs, some flexing of his shoulders, a few stretches, and a fist bump with his batting partner Aaron Finch. His body language communicates a clear eagerness to get into the heat of the battle.
Virat Kohli immediately positions Shikhar Dhawan at leg slip and points a finger towards Mohammed Shami, as if to say "execute the plan". Shami follows the cue and hurls in a short ball angling down the leg side. The umpire signals wide, and Shami wears a wry smile as he walks back to his mark. The plan is to attack Smith's rib cage. It's time for a contest.
Smith senses this and tries to get inside the line of the next ball. Predictably, it's short again. He attempts to pull but can't control it and gets an inside edge that flies past Dhawan to the fine-leg boundary. The signs are there that Smith is ready to take on India's fast bowlers early on.
There are fans watching post-dinner in Sydney precisely to see this. Bengaluru's cricket fanatics have braved the city's traffic for this and much else, not least to watch Kohli bat. But, for now, they're happy to see a good battle: Jasprit Bumrah and Shami trying to get Smith out early.
They continue to dish out short balls at good pace, but Smith gets behind the line or inside it, looking to either run the ball down to third man or nudge into the leg side. He's watching the ball so closely that a spot of light reflecting off an advertising hoarding a good 20 feet from the sightscreen distracts him as Navdeep Saini runs in to bowl. Smith pulls away, and a frustrated Saini, who had been about to bowl, glares at him.
Soon after, a snarling Saini sends down another short ball, and Smith defends with a casual air. Kohli runs in from mid-off and fires a throw that whizzes past Smith. In a series largely devoid of mind games or pre-match banter, this feels like a statement. Something is brewing and the game is well and truly alive. Smith hasn't been allowed to break free, even if the intent is there. He's fighting on 6 off 16 balls.
Now comes the jolt Australia don't want. Smith sells his captain a dummy, calling Finch for a single, only to turn his back on him once he responds. It's a costly lesson. You can't be indecisive against Ravindra Jadeja at backward point, certainly not after patting it to his left. Finch is seething. He yanks off his gloves, mouths a few words, and storms off. A stunned Smith arches his neck and looks skywards, not wanting to make eye contact, as Finch walks past him. Getting out now isn't an option. Smith has to tide over the storm, both inside his mind and in the dressing room, with Australia 46 for 2.
Marnus Labuschagne walks in to join Smith. Mentor and student, who "spend every minute together except while sleeping", according to Finch, are united at the batting crease again, less than 48 hours after they had nearly helped pull off a massive chase in Rajkot. Labuschagne doesn't show any nerves, and there's something of Steve Waugh in his gum-chewing. Runs are his currency, as he once said, and there is no other way he'd have it. Australia need another score, a big partnership from the "long-lost brothers" if they are to challenge India at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium.
Labuschagne crunches one early to the cover boundary and looks in pristine touch. Even so, Australia are scoring unusually slowly, despite India serving up a bouquet of wides. Kuldeep Yadav comes on in the 11th over to give the pair a workout, but Smith is quick on his feet, and whippy with his wrists once he gets to the pitch of the ball. The fifty partnership comes up in the 17th over, and Smith eases to his half-century at the start of the 23rd.
Australia begin to look ominous, with three fours coming in the space of seven balls, but India's bowlers retaliate by tightening their act: Jadeja, Kuldeep and Shami combine for 45 boundary-free balls. The pressure shows at one point, as Smith charges out to Kuldeep in the 27th over, in an attempt to hit out, only to be deceived off the pitch. Fortunately for him, his pad saves him, and a stumping is averted.
Smith's attempts to break the shackles aren't working just yet. Kuldeep slows his pace down, and Smith struggles for timing when he attempts to sweep. When he looks to force the ball away, he keeps finding the fielders. The tinge of slowness of the surface isn't helping him either. The scampered singles keep coming, but he remains in second gear. Unlike in most other Smith innings of this length, the trademark shots - the whirling pulls, the whiplash flicks from outside off stump - aren't making frequent appearances.
India's chokehold tightens when Labuschagne and Mitchell Starc - promoted as an old-fashioned pinch-hitter - depart in the 32nd over, a double-wicket maiden from Jadeja.
From a slightly shaky 173 for 4, Australia recover thanks to a cameo from Alex Carey, full of crisp drives and reverse-sweeps that keep the scoreboard ticking and take some of the pressure off Smith.
As Smith nears his hundred, some of the usual fluency returns. As the slog overs begin, and Carey and Ashton Turner return to the dressing room in quick succession, the floodgates finally open. Two glorious shots off Saini in the 46th over show off Smith's use of the crease, and his rubber wrists: an open-faced slice past backward point off a yorker gone slightly wrong, and a whipped six, over deep square-leg, off a good-length ball outside off stump.
Two more fours follow in the next over, off Bumrah, but he holes out off Shami in the 48th over. But, by then, he has ensured that a stop-start Australian effort has produced a competitive total. His control percentage, which had hovered around the 60 mark at one stage, ends at 85. And to put his "struggle" in perspective, he makes 131 off 132 when Australia's other batsmen together manage 128, off 168 balls.
It's Smith's first ODI hundred since returning from his year-long ban. It doesn't quite win Australia the match, but it extends their fight significantly. It's the perfectly imperfect innings.