Early last year, before Australia travelled to India for a four-match Test series, Steve Smith wanted his team to learn the attritional brand of cricket. It's rare for an Australian skipper to demand such style, as for the past two decades, most of Smith’s predecessors have tried to instil the ‘cut throat’ method.
But ever slowly, his troops are learning the art of eating away at the opposition in a methodical way rather than trying to finish them in short burst. On the pink day, the third day at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Smith himself and Usman Khawaja could easily have upped the scoring the run-rate and played a more expansive brand of cricket. But instead, they grafted, waited and buried the England bowlers in seconds, minutes, hours and then sessions.
Smith himself shocked the world by not scoring another ton. It wasn’t like he didn’t score any runs, he made fine 83, but he has set such high standards in the past four years that anything less than a century is persevered as a disappointment. His dismissal gave England that element of hope, of slicing through the Australian middle-order.
But as Smith departed, Shaun Marsh carried on with that new brand of Australian cricket. With him, was the very relaxed Khawaja. Having completed his century in the second over of the day, the left-hander also set his eyes on batting for the rest of the day.
For the next two hours, Khawaja and Marsh defended firmly, left the ball with authority and in the process frustrated the daylights out of the England bowlers. With another benign pitch presented to them, the England bowlers seem to lack any penetration and relied heavily on the batsmen making a mistake.
But this current batting line-up is slowly learning to put a price on their wicket. Regardless of the conditions, and the state of the game, they are so determined not to fall into the trap of the risk and reward play. To be fair, in the past, they might have succumbed to the English tactics of bowling a foot outside off-stump or trying to hit a ball through the tight on-side field, but now they wait for the right ball.
Having two left-handers in the middle against the leg-spinner Mason Crane favoured the Australians, but at no stage did they try an ambitious cover drive against spin, preferring to wait for the short ball or the real fuller one.
Possibly the two most enigmatic batsmen in the Australian XI, Marsh and Khawaja have felt the pressure of scoring quickly. But while Marsh has shown glimpses of it in his unpredictable career, it took a career-defining hundred against South Africa for Khawaja to realise he had the temperament to repel one of the best attacks in world cricket with an attritional grind. Once again, he had put that into place on the third day at the SCG, and it wasn’t until he had scored 171, that he finally lost his cool. It was yet another tick into that new style of cricket Smith wants his team to play.
By the time Mitchell Marsh joined his brother at the crease, the lead was already 29. The ball was soft, the temperature had rose into the high 30’s and fatigue had truly set in. The younger Marsh is one of the hard-hitters in the world could easily have started to crash the deflated England bowling into submission from ball one, but instead he took his time, taking 19 balls to score his first run. Mitch Marsh’s approach at the start of his innings was another indicator that the younger players had come to terms with this new brand of cricket.
The senior Marsh looked in his zone once again. His game seems to have gone another level since the first test. The powers of concentration, the technique that is so simple and based on uncomplicated movements. Almost without notice, he had brought up his fifth score in excess of 50 in the series.
As the clock ticked past five a clock, the lead had grown to 90, Australia had been ruthless and won the game of patience. It was so unlike this team, most of them had been taught to hit out of trouble, but with times they had learned to curb their natural instincts.
Finally, the time came and the floodgates opened. Mitch Marsh ran down the pitch and smashed Moeen Ali over the top and Shaun unleashed a couple of elegant cover drives. Suddenly, England would have felt they may present a chance, but after five hours in the baking hot sun, they had been demoralised.
The Marsh brothers smashed 50 runs in the last hour and took the lead to 133 at stumps. Come Day Four, Shaun will have another Ashes hundred for the taking. Mitch will surely take his time and then will look to bury the English.
One by one, all the Australian batsmen have followed the trail their skipper has wanted them to pursue. The pitches might be flat and the English attack might be toothless, but this Australian team is learning to be ruthless in a manner not many Australian teams have done in the past.