Ashes 2019: ‘Steve Smith and the wind steal England’s momentum’September 6, 2019
There was a moment, just as tea was called on the first day of this hugely anticipated and potentially decisive fourth Ashes Test, that summed up all that had come in the hours before.
As the rain came in sideways on thumping squalls, tearing the flapping beige covers from the frozen fingers of the ground staff, sending a steward in a clear plastic poncho staggering sideways as he tried to keep his feet on the outfield like a fisherman on the deck of a North Sea trawler, a New Orleans-style marching band appeared, playing When the Saints Go Marching In at full volume.
For those who have watched cricket in England for many years it was the type of twisted, idiosyncratic pathos that feels comfortingly familiar.
This is how the summer sport works. You arrive in shorts and leave in the early stages of hypothermia. You come to see Australia rolled and yet reserve your loudest cheer for a beach ball that escapes one grandstand and bounces clear across the pitch to the other.
Those who may have thrilled to the previous day of action in this series, when Ben Stokes broke records – and the boundaries of the previously thought possible – in the balmy sunshine and deafening noise of Headingley, there can only have been confusion.
Where there had been warmth there were winter coats. Where there was cavorting in the aisles there was sheltering under any available overhang. Where there had been Stokes laying waste there was Steve Smith accumulating and accumulating, most of it with a proto-Smith doing the same at the other end in the shape of Marnus Labuschagne.
From beautiful to the Beaufort Scale. Among the items that were blown off by the howling winds were the original set of bails, the umpire’s hat and the umpire’s sunglasses.
At one stage we went bail-free. No bail was immediately available that could cope with prevailing conditions. You began to fear for the lighter members of England’s outfielders. You began to think that the next umpire-related item to take flight might be Kumar Dharmasena himself.
Nowhere were the conditions bleaker than at the top of the vast temporary stand, which sticks out of the Stretford skyline line like a cricketing mountain and was as exposed in the gales and the cold rain as the ridge line of some Alpine peak.
There was fancy-dress there, because there is always fancy-dress at an England match. There were several Jack Leachs, all in glasses and white shirts with his name across the shoulders, and there were several in brick red with white mortar stripes as the Leach wall, graffiti reading 1* in tribute to the bespectacled spinner’s doughty role in the Miracle of Leeds.
There were also four Beatles, their Sergeant Pepper wigs being blown forward across their faces, their stick-on moustaches threatening to stick-off at any moment.
To have been a newcomer to Test cricket converted by the final day at Headingley and arriving at Old Trafford expecting more of the same it must have been like listening to the Fab Four, thinking how much you liked the songwriting of John Lennon and making your next purchase his extreme avant-garde Two Virgins album.
Much of the talk between the end of the third Test and the start of this had been about the momentum now being with England. If that felt a little one-eyed – it having taken one of the great Test innings to rescue them, their top four still mainly out of form, their all-time leading wicket-taker out of the series – it felt more curious still when Smith returned to the crease.
Would England have won in Leeds had Smith not been missing through concussion? The way he batted on Wednesday, as distinctively quirky between deliveries as he is unobtrusive in the actual compilation of his runs, you tried not to think about it too much.
There was plenty of momentum, much of it behind the crisp packets than kept racing across the square from east to west, more to Smith’s brisk innings.
Stuart Broad had looked very Stuart Broad in getting rid of David Warner for another duck – his sixth score of less than 10 in this series – and then Marcus Harris with the score still on 28, all oohs and appeals and aggression. Then Smith started flicking and nudging and gradually, as throughout so many recent Ashes battles, the game was away from England and under his distinctive control.
Smith ended the day on 60 not out, as unflustered by the weather as if he were batting on a toasty Boxing Day at the MCG. It was his eighth successive Ashes half-century. No other man has ever scored more than six on the trot.
He is averaging 146 in this series. Despite that it can be hard to remember many of the individual shots that get him there. Stokes bulldozed Australia’s attack at Headingley. Smith just undermines the foundations like an army of termites.
It is a good thing for Australia that their former captain is in such unparalleled form. Their opening stands in this series so far have gone 2, 13, 11, 13, 12, 10, and 1.
It is frightening for England because it threatens to trump all else they have.
Stokes bowled, to appreciative bellows from those in the crowd warm enough to suck in the air, and ended with 0-36 off his eight hard-working overs. Leach bowled with his old partner in at slip and found his length and a little turn, even if Labuschagne did drive him off the back foot for two simple fours in his first over.
For Jofra Archer, England’s other great hope, it was a day to continue his Test education. So immediate has his impact in this team been that it is easy to forget this is only his third match.
He found the fastest ball of day for Smith but also struggled to maintain the threat he had posed in Leeds and at Lord’s.
He will have other days. Not every one will be as grim as this, although perhaps the faint-hearted should ignore the current forecast for Friday.