November 25, 2017
Tristan Lavalette in Brisbane
Steven Smith emotionally thumped the Australian crest on his shirt in a rallying war cry to teammates after completing another imperious century in the first Test in Brisbane on Saturday (November 25).
Watching the Australian captain’s prolonged celebration, you knew how much the landmark figure meant for him but, more importantly, Smith was passionately imploring his underachieving players to lift their game after a wobbly start to the Ashes.
“It just meant a lot, the Ashes series always means a lot,” Smith told reporters about his emotional celebration. “As the captain, I want to lead from the front as much as I can. All of it came out when I reached a hundred.”
By the end of Australia’s first innings of 328, Smith’s unbeaten 141 from 326 balls had almost broken a flagging England’s spirit as he combined with No.11 Nathan Lyon in a last-wicket stand of 30 to give his team a handy lead and a surge of momentum for the upbeat bowlers, who peppered a beleaguered England before stumps.
Imposingly, Smith remained unbeaten in a surefire pointed message to his opponents that he is virtually impregnable and an unmovable obstacle for England, who tried an assortment of trickery on day three but to no avail. Sensing perhaps a weakness, in a targeted onslaught, England unleashed a short-pitched pace assault on Smith, as Root cleared out the slip cordon to strengthen the leg-side. Due to Smith’s unusual penchant of shuffling across the crease, bowlers often strategise to target the stumps but Root decided to try something different.
With quick Chris Woakes relentlessly bowling short at 140kmh, Smith’s fortitude was tested but the hostility seemingly steeled him into a state of Zen-like concentration. With batting somewhat tricky on a jarringly slow Gabba deck, Smith smartly shelved the cover drive to ensure minimal risk – harking memories of Sachin Tendulkar’s similar such decision at the SCG in 2004. The recalibration of his batting was a window into Smith’s innate smartness and willingness to shed his ego.
Smith believed England’s tactics were negative throughout Australia’s innings. “There was some defensive fields set, boundaries were hard to get,” he said. “I was waiting for balls in my area and being really disciplined, which is what I did really well today. I was just playing the ball on its merits and being patient, waiting for them to bowl where I wanted them to bowl.
“It was as if they were waiting for our batters to make a mistake,” he added. “It felt very defensive and it might be a series where boundaries are hard to come by.”
In the latest iconic moment in an astounding career, which is probably not even at its midway point, Smith defied a disciplined and well-prepared England to once again rescue Australia from the doldrums.
On a slow pitch, an unwavering England led by a cunning Root threw everything at Smith but, right now, nothing can unruffle Australia’s skipper, who has remarkably elevated himself above his star-studded rivals to emerge as the world’s undisputed best Test batsman.
Unlike some of his slumping teammates, Smith can remodel his batting on the fly – a testament of his preparedness and understanding of his game. The 28-year-old is quickly building a compilation of greatest performances with his latest hit possibly leapfrogging his Pune masterpiece from earlier this year.
A measured Smith didn’t quite catapult the knock to the top but was thrilled with his concentration throughout the innings. It was Smith’s slowest century of his burgeoning career, which now brims with 21 Test tons from a mere 57 matches.
“It would be up there,” Smith said. “With the team in trouble, I had to bat some time and dig deep. I just had to fight really hard, get through difficult periods and just keep batting. It took me time to hit a groove.
“Batting this morning, everything felt really good,” he added. “I certainly take a lot of confidence over how I played, especially the discipline I showed.”
Undoubtedly, testament to the standing of the Ashes, this series is set to heavily shape Smith’s captaincy reign. A convincing triumph will be a telltale sign that things are percolating nicely for Smith’s team but, conversely, a home defeat would be catastrophic and a major dent to his standing.
After a turbulent past 12 months, Smith believed Australia were heading in the right direction. “We’ve been up and down how we’ve played,” he admitted. “I think we are still growing as a team and learning each other’s game. Trying to improve and get better – that is what I ask for the guys.
“We are working hard and I think we are in a reasonable position at the moment,” he added.
Through Smith’s singlemindedness, Australia has gained the ascendancy of the first Test after three attritional days. A well prepared and disciplined England have showed a healthy dose of pluck but Australia’s star power is starting to impose its will on the contest.
“I thought the bowlers bowled well this evening, they have to do that in the morning. Hopefully, we can get a few early ones and put the pressure on.”