Some numbers for you; 56, 38, 25, 11, 5 and 7, the scores compiled by Steve Smith in the Test series he contested prior to this in South Africa. That was in March last year before being claimed by the sandpaper trial. He averaged 23.6.
Who was that man? Where is that player? He was mortal then. Already this year in just four innings either side of a concussion he has scored more Test runs than any other batsman in the world, 589. OK, he was caught off a no-ball here while on 118, but hey, it is not his fault that slow moving vehicle Jack Leach can’t plant his feet legally at walking pace.
Though Smith is self-evidently in a category of one, this kind of domination can be hard to watch. Rather like Manchester City cracking four against A.N. Other every week the inevitability of the world’s No 1 batsman shelling a 26th Test ton, this one of the daddy variety, was from the English perspective something of spectacle killer and an unmistakable drain on hope.
The bloke is just too good. Discrepancies in talent and quality this big lead to a lack of competitive gristle. Smith’s 211 was his 11th century against England, his third this series and took him past 2,500 Ashes runs, more than Ricky Ponting and Tubby Taylor. He is now more than halfway to the 5,028 Ashes total amassed by the Don. Though Bradman and England’s Jack Hobbs also scored 500 in an Ashes series, the former five times, only Smith has done it three times consecutively.
It is not so much the improvised brilliance that overwhelms but the simple stuff, the way he leans on the bat for a single either side of the wicket, breaking the spirit of the bowler who strayed a millimetre off line. Another feature of his relentless accumulation is the quick single, which takes another bite out of the fielding side’s morale. In a game of small margins, a contest of tiny victories as well as wickets and runs, little things like that get right under the skin.
The Australian goal was clearly to bat England out of the Ashes. Ben Stokes’s heroics at Headingley apart there is little in the England portfolio to suggest that Australia will have to return to the crease a second time. This was old school, attritional Test cricket, aided by four dropped catches, two of them absolute dollies in the second session by Jason Roy and sub Sam Curran, as well as the Leach no-ball fiasco.
Not for the first time this series Smith got himself out seemingly unable to concentrate for one second longer. He had been at the crease all day having walked to the wicket on Wednesday morning with the score on 28 for two. That Joe Root was the bowler tells you how exhausted was the well of English ideas. With the clock approaching 5:40pm Smith obliged with a reverse sweep to backward point where Joe Denly gobbled the catch.
This was the third Ashes double century of Smith’s career. Two have ended reverse sweeping Root. Following his exit Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon plundered a woefully ineffective England attack, the former smacking 54 off 58 balls, including a six of Jofra Archer, the latter 26 off as many deliveries to take Australia to 497 for eight. Archer ended up wicketless, shipping 97 runs off 27 overs. Test cricket bites back.
Asked to bat for 40 minutes England reached 23 for the loss of Denly. It was a sharp take caught at the second attempt by Matthew Wade at short leg. How galling that after Australia had clattered the best part of 500 runs courtesy of England’s Teflon hands, they should snaffle a wicket by pouching a half chance.
The players left the field with the floodlights illuminating the stadium and the sun setting not only on the temporary stand at the Stretford End but on England’s hopes of winning this match. We have been here before, of course. Let’s hope England’s top order weigh in before Stokes is asked to don his cape for a second time in as many Tests.