They came for one kind of story. What they got was another entirely. Under gloomy Birmingham skies Steve Smith produced an innings of rare and compelling brilliance, ending on 144 out of 284 and transforming through a combination of craft and will the direction of this first Ashes Test.
It came, of course, in the most extraordinary circumstances. We booed him out – and we booed him back in again. And then in again. And then out. And then again at 4.44pm as Smith sprinted off the field, only to come haring back on again as the covers were shooed away grandly by Aleem Dar.
An hour later Smith was booed once more, but also cheered on all sides by large sections of the Edgbaston crowd as he reached his hundred with a cover drive off Ben Stokes, bat meeting ball with that familiar whip-crack sweetness and sending it scooting away into a sudden patch of sunlight.
How to describe Smith’s hundred here? The temptation will be there to linger on his ban over the ball-tampering incident, to see some kind of cheese-laden personal redemption, and no doubt that is part of the drama for Smith and for those around him.
Sport loves this kind of ham storyline. Does one really speak to the other? Does brilliance with the bat redeem a shabby, ludicrously over-censured piece of poor sportsmanship? Does it matter either way? What is certain is that Smith produced an act of pure sporting will here, achieved while appearing more furiously Steve Smith than Steve Smith has ever been before. England might yet struggle to recover.
The day had begun with the much-trailed pantomime of Australia’s recently banned players. Tim Paine invited England to bowl and Stuart Broad did for two of the DIY brothers in the first four overs. With Smith walking to the wicket this felt as though it might be one of those moments where the sky darkens, winds swirl, the birds fly backwards and everything seems to turn a shade of Broad.
Instead, something different happened. There are extreme talents in every sport, those who seem to be operating within a bespoke little pocket of time and space. Smith is something else even within this category of otherness.
Test batting is about clean lines, about decisive movements, control of your mental state and your physical movements. Everything Smith does seems at first sight to be the opposite of this. Flinching, twitching, whirling, hopping, Smith plays like he’s on the very edge of his nerves. In reality, he’s utterly in the moment, utterly settled within the state of being Steve Smith.
The routine quickly settled. Walk. Turn. Touch pad roll. Touch other pad roll. Adjust box. Flick wrist. Pad roll, pad roll, box. Dip knees. Leap across. Freeze time. Bring bat down into perfect contact with ball. Shake head. Pretend to flee swarm of bees. Drink imaginary yard of ale. And repeat.
Smith had come out at 17 for two. Usman Khawaja made little impression. Travis Head played nicely. James Pattinson was unlucky. Smith watched them go. For a while he produced a range of startling leaves. One was like a cartoon karate chop. The next was a full body flinch, feet splayed, like a cat startled by a sneeze. In early afternoon his leaves became angry and irritable, leaves directed at the shadows of his departing partners, as though demonstrating to a sullen child how to perform a simple task.
Still he hit the gaps and whipped his spring-loaded wrists. This was attritional. It was gutsy. It was riveting. At 103 for four Smith was given out lbw by Dar – only ever a provisional state in this game. The batsman’s review was very Smith: instant and unerringly accurate.
Smith’s fifty came up with Australia on 130. It took 119 balls, a startlingly chanceless innings in the middle of all that flux. Fielders were placed in strange places. Smith whipped the ball either side of them. He whirled his bat. He seemed at one point ready to hurl it in fury towards cover. He is captivating, precise, high craft. He’s also very funny.
Smith is still tolerated by some recent greats of the Test game, treated as a novelty, a man on a giddy run. He isn’t any of those things. He is instead, if we take the numbers seriously, an authentic giant of this game. Only three men have played 50 Tests and averaged over 60. Don Bradman, Steve Smith and Herbert Sutcliffe, in that order.
His strengths are clear enough. He plays the ball astonishingly late and from a point of complete stillness even within that drunken scarecrow act. Even now England seem to think they can pitch it up and get him lbw. The search for Smith’s front pad goes on. In the last six years England have got him out lbw three times. The last time it happened he was on 239. The time before that he was on six. The time before that he was on 215.
Smith went to 98 with a brilliantly severe straight-arm thrash for six almost into the arms of his accusers in the Hollies Stand. Then came the hundred. He was finally out bowled by Broad having a gleeful yahoo. There were boos even then as he raised his bat and walked off, but applause too from all around the ground. As was entirely right. This was an innings of rare sporting genius, of pure will – and of character too, in the way only Test cricket can reveal it.
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