An innings replete with eye-catching leaves came to an end with a rather lacklustre dismissal. Steve Smith didn’t offer a shot as he played for the out-swinger, even as the ball came in and struck him squarely on the pads for a leg-before-wicket. It was a rare folly in what was a well-rounded – if not dominating – effective, if not aesthetically pleasing Test match innings.
Walking out to bat with his team having suffered a couple of early jolts in David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, Steve Smith sauntered down the long road from the dressing room to the Lord’s long room to the ground and to the pitch where he took his guard. All the while the crowd jeered at the man that had beaten them and their team in the first Ashes Test.
Smith’s usual routine with the fidgety mannerisms, the stuff of ridicule for his detractors, came to a head as wickets fell on the other end. England bowlers prodded the Australian batsmen to poke around the off-stump with a menacing line and length down the corridor of uncertainty. While the strategy laid the Australian top-order to waste, Smith held on for arresting display which only ceased when rain interrupted the show.
In the run-up to the second Ashes Test, former England captain Andrew Strauss had said that Smith was bound to poke around and edge one to the slips if the England bowlers persisted with their line and length outside the off-stump.
Leaving the ball is boring you say? Have a look at this video of Steve Smith. Making the art of leaving the ball, entertaining. Sensational batsmen! pic.twitter.com/sIFWUUy7dm
— Raghav Tibrewala (@TibrewalaRaghav) August 16, 2019
On Friday and much of Saturday, Smith didn’t just prove him otherwise but seemed determined to make a mockery of that priestly bit of wisdom from Strauss. Hence, the extravagant leaves. Moreover, if leaving the balls outside the off-stump wasn’t considered artful, Smith took a giant leap in his bid to prove otherwise. Not staying content with keeping his technique in check, Smith would leave the ball alone with a follow-through which was bound to make even the English quicks envious. In the course of that innings, he may have just tinkered with the cricket vocabulary: Steve Smith didn’t just leave the ball. He played the ‘leave’ shot. One can imagine, years down the line, cricket commentators explaining the difference between the two with contrasting videos. Virat Kohli leaving the ball. Steve Smith playing the ‘leave’ shot like swatting flies or pulling off disco-esque dance moves. Both ‘greats’ of the game.
Rain closed out much of the third day’s play and Twitter had a field day with numerous analogies for Smith’s batting effort popping up by the second.
The next day though, something else occupied the centre-stage and unfortunately for Australia, Smith couldn’t leave the ball this time.
A speeding Jofra Archer never let up even as Smith hopped on his merry way, leading the Australian resurgence and guiding the visitors to 150 for the loss of five wickets. When he wasn’t busy playing the ‘leave’ shot, Smith drove off the back-foot, past covers for four runs, or flicked the dollies straying on his pads down midwicket.
England banged the ball short but if they were hoping for Smith to lose his balance, they were left dumbstruck by the lameness of their attempt. When playing the pull shot, Smith swivelled like a ballet dancer with a lingering grace confusing the cameraperson if he should keep his focus on the batsman or trace the trajectory of the ball.
Soon after, Jofra Archer dropped one short. The deceptive bounce had Smith knuckling under but the ball caught him in an awkward position, striking him on the unprotected elbow which lay exposed.
The play was stopped for a while as Smith received some padding on his bruised elbow and opted to shoulder on, not looking to miss out on the leverage he had gained over the England bowlers.
However, Archer never bought into the ruse of the indomitable Smith, shifting his gaze from the padded elbow to the helmet. The short ball worked again and struck him on the nape of his neck.
It was the dubious bounce coupled with the express 90 miles per hour pace which undid him once again. His fall was ugly, face-down, mirroring that of Phil Hughes who had lost his life to one such delivery, and whose mention provides an added scare every time a batsman is felled by a bouncer.
That is not without good reason as evidenced by the aftermath of Smith’s fall. He lay in a dazed state, sprawled by the crease, even as Jofra Archer chose to walk away. Like Nick Kyrgios in tennis, Archer relishes the physicality of sports.
A dejected Smith left the field as doctors ordered for an immediate concussion test. However, the next batsman, Peter Siddle felt like a sitting duck. When he fell, edging one for a simple catch to the wicket-keeper, it felt like a traffic cone being toppled for the minimal foot-work on display. In came Steven Smith, again, for a final strain of the nerves.
Chris Woakes returned to the attack and Smith played his part in the final flourish as Australia inched closer to the England first innings total of 258. A full-length delivery from Woakes had Smith muscling the ball for a hoist over long. The next ball, he dealt with the change in length with a deft push off the back-foot, finding the gap in the cover region for four.
However, two overs later, Smith lost his wicket to Woakes for 92, leaving onlookers, the cheerers and naysayers disappointed in equal parts for it felt like a wicket which belonged to Jofra Archer.
It was there for his taking. He had worked for it, barbecued the Australian for the scrumptious treat, saving the tail-enders for dessert. It wasn’t to be though for after being struck by Archer twice, Smith was like a loose tooth, always in harm’s way, unpredictable in the inevitability of his fall.
While Archer may have pummelled Smith into oblivion, leaving him dazed and consigning him to the doctors' care, Smith's fortuitous turn of luck - he avoided a fracture on his battered elbow somehow and passed the concussion tests - may be a testament to the fruits of an unflinching will to succeed.
Smith’s bruise on the elbow looked ugly, a bulge which swelled by the minute on camera. He grimaced while playing the forward-defence shot.
It remains to be seen if the injury wasn’t as ugly as it seemed and if Smith can play on for the rest of the match and the series. If not, Archer’s call-up to the England squad will seem like a massive stroke of luck which he himself wouldn’t have predicted.