Ashes 2019: Steve Smith's double ton at Old Trafford reveals he is more strength than skills

It's morning in Manchester. Steve Smith has resumed batting on Day 2 of the fourth Ashes Test. Alongside him is Travis Head. The sun's out and it is bright. No chance of rain, the weather apps tell. One and a half hours later, Head and Matthew Wade have returned to the pavilion. Some clouds have made their way over Old Trafford, the cricket stadium.

But Steve Smith is still batting.

Soon lunch is called, players go and grab a bite and come back. Tim Paine plays a good knock and goes back to the hut.

Steve Smith, however, is still batting.

Players take tea. Spectators get a break to stand up, stretch themselves and grab a cup of coffee. Ben Stokes gets injured, comes back to field again. England take a sigh of relief. And it's afternoon on Day 2. It's gloomier than the morning, resembling England's mood. Wickets are tumbling at one end for Australia, but at the other end, Steve Smith is still batting.

Steve Smith is still batting, in our heads. He got out on 211 finally, but he is still batting, in England's subconscious. He is there in his haters' psyche who annoyingly check score to see if he is still batting. He is there in his fans' hearts who rush back after attending the nature's call to see if he is still batting.

Steve Smith focussing hard on Day 2 of the fourth Test. AFP

Steve Smith focussing hard on Day 2 of the fourth Test. AFP

When Ashes began, there were other questions hovering over the country of England. Would Steve Smith be able to play Tests the way he used to play earlier? Ian Chappell felt that he may not be the same player after what happened in Cape Town. His recent records agreed too. World Cup scores were not too heartening.

However, those questions have now been erased. Smith has written a fresh one for his fans and haters alike - 'Is Steve Smith Still Batting?'

One has to agree that the new Steve Smith is more strength than skills. He was never the most good looking batsman on the scene. His stance is still debated and talked about.

'How is he doing that?', 'That's an ugly stance' are among the dominant questions related to the technique. The way he left a few deliveries in two innings of the first Test made for an interesting watch. It only added to the weirdness in his batsmanship.

It's usually his front arm that guides him while batting. During the Indian Premier League (IPL), the first tournament he played after surgery on the same arm, it was not coming as straight while he came into position to play his shots as he would have liked. Rajasthan Royals coach Paddy Upton had said that it was causing him some trouble.

Now, there's no pain in the arm. The hand-eye coordination is back. The timing is sweet. In terms of skill, Smith does not need anything else to become the World No. 1 Test batsman. It was the strength, both physical and mental, which mattered. So, one year on from Chappell expressing his doubts, Smith is back.

There were multiple questions still: Would that scar be erased in quick time? Would he be able to mute the hecklers?

Innings-by-innings during the on-going Ashes, Smith rubbished each and every apprehension. The apprehensions which we thought were his but they turned to be ours. He was ready for Ashes more than those who thronged the stadiums with placards, masks to mock him. He was more ready than a talented newbie on the block who threatened to take his wicket in the fourth Test.

Steve Smith walks back to the pavilion after scoring 211. Image courtesy: Twitter/@meljones_33

Steve Smith walks back to the pavilion after scoring 211. Image courtesy: Twitter/@meljones_33

Also, the 211 is more important for Steve Smith than any other of his innings. He got out finally after a stage. Before that, he appeared immortal. The adjectives used for him did not justify either the batsman in him or the human.

In this innings, he got his reprieves. He was not perfect and it's more satisfying to know that those who make mistakes can also be adjudged as hero. There is no perfect man. Steve Smith was more human and less god-like.

That is why we need to talk about his mental strength, a human thing.

Before the fourth Test, Jofra Archer posed a challenge to him. Smith took it up. Here was a young blood trying to prove a point against one of the best batters in world cricket. Archer had knocked him down in the second Test. That snorter of a delivery was the reason he could not play in the third Test. The same Test which Australia lost. Archer had made his point. Now was Smith's time.

To everyone who felt that Smith would not be the same player or he would not be able to bear this trauma of ban, the hecklers, the boos and the chants, did not know one thing: that he loves the stage more than anyone else.

Ricky Ponting said once how Smith would keep knocking the bat in his hotel room. How he keeps knocking the bat in the dressing room. His mind is always thinking cricket. After the ban, or after the concussion rest, he returned not because he was forced into it, but because he loves it. When he walks to the middle, he does not see the pitch, he sees it as a stage. And he loves the stage.

He likes to stay busy. He likes attention and that is why he relished captaincy. He likes to be in thick of action. So whether you praise him or hate him, he knows he is getting to you and he loves it.

When Smith walked in with Australia in bit of bother at 28 for 2, he already had an upper hand over the English. His twin centuries and the 92 he made was enough of a damage to the hosts. They were already thinking about him. How to get him out? Archer had said many things in the press. Smith could sense their pulses, could hear their heartbeats.

England began to try everything possible to get him out - Stuart Broad's inswingers, Archer's pace and bounce, Jack Leach's spin. However, slowly and steadily, the Steve Smith innings attracted more charm.

Everytime Archer bowled a fullish delivery, he was hit for runs. On the next ball he pulled the length back as course correction. There was a pattern in his bowling and Smith was prepared for it. The bouncer by now had become Archer's ego, and this ego had become Smith's shield. Almost everything full was not left unpunished by Smith. Even the wide outside the off stump fullish ones, were hit by a stretched Smith who mostly played the shot by putting weight on his right knee beyond the point fielder for four.

From scaring him with bouncers, England were bowling him wide deliveries as he approached the double hundred. Smith had tired the bowlers before he reached the landmark. Against his will, England bowlers' pace, bounce and guile had bowed down.

An out-of-ideas Joe Root had to bring himself into the attack after Smith surpassed 200 and there were some overs bowled by Joe Denly as well. He threw his wicket away against Root trying to score some quick runs before Paine could declare. It was a proof that Smith gave his wicket to England more than England picked it.

The match is in Australia's control. Not that England do not have batsman of quality but the dynamics of Test cricket will tell it is a daunting task from here. England batters know they need to bat as long as possible to take this match deep. They know they have to make a score which gives them something to fight with.

They know they need to post a score in first innings which throws a stiffer challenge to Australia. England know they need a big score before Smith is batting again. But do England know Smith yet? Do they know what to do to take him down?

Updated Date: September 06, 2019 10:41:55 IST

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