Australia primed for Ashes-clinching win after Cummins rips through England’s top order
Bit by bit. Day by day. Piece by piece.
During the 2015 Ashes, there was an argument circulating about whether Joe Root or Steve Smith was the better batsman. Both were prodigies, both captains in waiting, having racked up enough centuries to prove their credentials.
Both were part of a Fab Four with India’s Virat Kohli and New Zealand’s Kane Williamson as the future titans of a new generation.
Inevitably, comparisons were made by people who weren’t content to just enjoy the talents of all four.
In the series four years ago, Root’s 134 at Cardiff gave England an early lead. Smith made 215 at Lord’s to level the series. But a run of four single-figure scores for Smith, and the Ashes were lost.
After Australia made 60 at Trent Bridge, Root made a ton to seal the series, meaning that Smith’s 143 at The Oval only set up a consolation win.
There was a criticism that Smith couldn’t play a moving ball, and that his runs in London were on the flattest tracks. That didn’t explain why Root hadn’t also cashed in, but he was praised as being the “proper” batsman.
Perhaps some passing god of the pantheon decided that this was hubris, because Root and his team have been sorely punished against Australia ever since.
Skip to 2019, and Smith is a triple-century away from the most prolific Test series of all time. Root had never registered a golden duck in 82 Tests before this Ashes series and now has done it twice in three matches.
Steve Smith stands over Joe Root, a rival he has cast into the shadows with his own supreme form. (AP: Rui Vieira)
In fact Root had only five ducks of any sort in his first 152 innings, but now has three in his last five.
This is the endpoint in a sequence that has taken a very good player apart, one piece at a time.
It started in Australia in 2017. Two captains of their sides, two blue-chip batsmen, the ones who had to deliver. After Smith made a defining unbeaten 141 to open the series in Brisbane, Root was mustering a third-innings reply but was bounced out for 51.
When Smith failed at Adelaide, Root had the fifth-day chance to carry his team home but fell for 67.
Smith’s double ton in Perth took the trophy while Root couldn’t make a score, and even the most placid track in Melbourne left Root with 61 while Smith made another century.
Root already had a history of falling for fifties, but never had the difference been so stark or so decisive. He ended the Sydney Test heat-struck and dizzy, retired hurt and checked into St Vincent’s hospital after two more fifties.
While Smith celebrated a win, Root lay in a darkened dressing room letting his intravenous rehydration kick in.
Admittedly, Root didn’t subsequently captain his side into a cheating scandal that drew the ire of the entire cricketing world, so you could make the case that Smith’s life since then has been less pleasant and less successful.
In pure batting terms though, the gulf of that series has proved no anomaly.
It would be unreasonable to expect anyone to keep up with the Smith of 2019, having returned from suspension to embark on one of the most ludicrous scoring sprees in the span of the sport.
But Root so far has mustered three fifties and the aforementioned ducks in response to Smith’s three centuries and a lowest series score of 82.
In Smith’s last nine innings against England, his lowest score was 74. Against Root as captain he averages 135.8.
Literally Root’s entire experience of leading Ashes teams has been standing in the field for days trying to find a way to get Steve Smith out.
If the last day of Sydney in 2018 wasn’t mockery enough — one fainting and sick while the other celebrated — the fourth day of Old Trafford added a whole fresh layer of humiliation.
From a deficit of 196 on the first innings, England briefly had hope after four quick wickets. Smith snuffed it out in darkly comic fashion, with declaration batting like delirium tremens conveyed through interpretive dance.
As soon as he came back from the tea break this was Smith the true absurdist: cantering, chuntering, walloping, a slew of rubberised elbows and knees as he lashed through cover, over the bowler, between the sweepers.
Steve Smith has flayed England’s bowlers to all corners of the country. (Reuters: Carl Recine)
The bat swished lavishly in backlift and follow-through. At times when he hit the ball you swore you could hear the “aaaaooogaah!” of a Toad of Toad Hall bulb horn.
When Broad tried to cramp him by bowling short down leg, Smith backed away so far he could drag a pull through midwicket. When Broad went still further, Smith stood in place and watched it go for five wides.
When a squeeze rolled past his stumps, he expressed his anxiety by holding his bat over his head and going for a crab-walk backwards down the pitch, then a crab-charge back towards his wicket.
When Jofra Archer bounced him, Smith got under the ball by falling forward onto his knees outside off stump, then by falling backwards outside leg. A couple of overs later he wound up flat on his back, then practised an uppercut from his spot in the dirt.
It didn’t matter. Once again, England couldn’t get rid of him until he was done. Nearly a thousand balls faced in this series, nearly 700 runs scored, and this salvo perhaps the most galling of the lot.
As for Root, having played the traffic policeman outwitted by a parade of clown cars, he had to come out after Australia’s declaration and bat.
Only a handful of overs in the day. Of course one of his openers fell from the third ball. Of course Root had to enter in the number three spot that he doesn’t want, unlike the number four that Smith gets without question.
With all that done, he got the best ball Pat Cummins can produce, one that angled in at middle stump and swung slightly away, seamed slightly further, forced his defensive shot down one line before politely slipping past to clip his off stump.
Joe Root walking off disappointed has been a familiar theme this series. (Reuters: Lee Smith)
The Joe Root who walked off one ball after arriving looked exhausted, deflated, and thoroughly defeated. The one-day team that he doesn’t lead just won a World Cup despite the worst innings of his career. The Test team he does lead has become a rabble, at least until you reach the bowlers.
This is a team trying to take comfort in the lurching survivalist batting of Rory Burns as a player for the future. A team trying to turn its opener into a number four and its number four into an opener when probably neither of them is either. A team stacked with white-ball players who are either too tired or unable to change.
Smith is freed from all of these worries. His team may be ordinary — and in batting terms they really are. Three openers haven’t managed a run while the guy who made 180 in his last start was booted from the squad. The first drop was the last dropped after too long without delivering.
The number five plays three shots per ball, the six is trying to find his way as a batsman who used to be a wicketkeeper, and the seven is a wicketkeeper who isn’t entirely a batsman.
But Smith is Smith, at the peak of his powers, and it seems that he can do the job of half a dozen by himself. Four years ago the two were locked together. But the brighter Smith has shone since then, the more Root has become a shadow.