How do you solve a problem like Steve Smith?
England may have dismissed the former Australian captain twice in the first Test match at Edgbaston, but it took them 426 attempts, came at the cost of 286 runs and the chance of making a winning start to the Ashes.
England began day four with hope, with Australia 124-3, holding a slender lead of 34. They ended it chastened, on 13-0, staring down a nominal target of 398 after Australia declared on 487-7.
Everything the hosts threw at Smith was repelled – either extravagantly left alone, defensively dismissed, worked assiduously into a gap or dispatched to the boundary.
When his dismissals have eventually come – after 144 runs in the first-innings and 142 in the second – they have been from tired, attacking strokes when he has looked to put his foot on England’s throat.
If he can be said to have one weakness, it’s converting scores of 140 into 150s. After all, he is the first person to make two scores in the 140s in a single Test.
Smith has spent the last 16 months not playing first-class cricket. But rather than that period causing rustiness to set in, like might be expected, it looks to have recharged his batteries and sent him back to the crease as some sort of run-scoring cyborg from the future, intent on grinding his opponents into the dirt through unrelenting run-scoring.
Batsmen practice in the nets using a bowling machine – an automated device which allows its user to select the speed, angle and length of delivery.
Operating at the absolute peak of his powers Smith looks like the equivalent for bowlers – a mechanical batsman, programmed to leave alone any potentially dangerous ball, block the good ones and score from anything else.
His obsessive compulsive routine – the adjustment of both pads, fiddle with the box, touching of the gloves – helps him ascend into another realm, one in which the next ball is the only focus.
While his technique is utterly unique, unlikely to be written into any coaching manuals or taught to budding batsmen, Smith’s patience is perhaps his greatest quality.
It’s the asset which has allowed him to put together two chance-less innings at Edgbaston. And it’s the main reason England have, over the course of three days, moved from a position of dominance to one of fighting for a draw; from a first-innings lead of 90 to an insurmountable 398 to win.
Smith’s unquestioned brilliance against England is such that his last six Ashes scores now read: 142, 144, 83, 102 not out, 76 and 239.
While the batsman to inflict the damage, alongside Matthew Wade, who made 110, Travis Head (51) and James Pattinson (47 not out), must be commended, England haven’t helped themselves.
Jimmy Anderson’s injury was unfortunate, leaving the four other bowlers with heightened work loads and meaning 28 overs have been required from part-time bowlers Joe Denly and Joe Root, but England undoubtedly lost their way.
Australia piled on 363 runs in just 81 overs today. No bowler managed to stem the flow of runs, with off-spinner Moeen Ali going at 4.48 per over, failing to make the most of the assistance on offer. Ideas were thin on the ground. Field placings became negative as England awaited the inevitable.
In the end the declaration took longer than expected, coming after Pattinson bludgeoned four dispiriting sixes, but the visitors will still be hopeful they can become the first Australian side to win in England after conceding a first-innings lead since 1981.
England now need heroics to scrape a draw. They will hope Rory Burns, batting for a fifth consecutive day, can produce another gritty hundred to ensure Smith’s hard work goes uncapitalised upon.
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