Clad in white costumes, their ultra-big collars turned up, huge wigs on the head stood 15 Elvis Presleys on the first tier. For a while, they had heard the Indian fans down below create quite a lovely ruckus, chanting and jumping as Aaron Finch looked scratchy and David Warner had already been dismissed. Enter a fidgety man with a Charlie Chapman-ish gait: Steve Smith.
Smith doesn’t sit well with the stereotypical Aussie cricketer. A schoolboyish face, a shy smile, they say he isn’t much of a sledger, funny gait in running across the track, and a sense of fidgetiness doesn’t present an image of a confident batsman. He jerks his body, touches his helmet, one hand adjusts his pad, and then off he goes again repeating the routine.
As if he isn’t still used to wearing a helmet or a pad. Sometimes we see it with boys who have just started wearing an over-sized helmet and donned pads for the first time. That’s the image; the reality is starkly different. Over the summer, Smith has roasted India in this sun-baked country.
On Thursday, the sun slanted across right down at the Elvis gang. Beers in hand, they started to find their voices, and their middle fingers, once Smith started doing what he has done all summer. The flock of Elvis flicked the middle fingers at the Indian section below, with a wink and a laugh. “Smithy! You Aussie beauty!’ went up the chant.
The Indians didn’t exactly make it difficult for Smith. Through the tournament, they have used the bouncer really well and taken a clutch of wickets with it. On Thursday, on this flat Sydney pitch, they needed to put greater effort and produce venomous bouncers; not limpid short balls that they served Smith. “There were a few freebies early on,” said Smith later.
And yet, the Indians had started well at Smith. The first delivery at him was the best they bowled at him all day. Umesh Yadav curled a full outswinger and a squared-up Smith just about managed to squeeze it through gully. That length was the key; Smith’s entire set-up as a batsman, his stance, his balance, and his shots are made for the short, and short-of-length deliveries. It’s the full-length that can nail him, make his balance go awry and produce iffy drives. But Indians gave up too quickly. Off the third delivery he faced, he drove a full ball from Yadav to long-off boundary and somehow, it ended India’s attempt at this length. Two deliveries at the start and then nothing.
Instead, a series of short balls arrived: limp, weak, pick-me-ups and he smashed them. It was the 10th over that turned the tide. Four short balls, all four disappeared. The first sizzled through cover point, the next two was dragged through midwicket and the last one was thrown back from the square-leg boundary. From a nervy 40 for 1, Australia had jumped to 56 for 1, Smith was on fire, and the Elvis gang was punch-drunk on him.
Smith was always going to do well against spin and Thursday was no different. He is not the batsman that is ever going to be caught stuck at the crease. His father Peter has traced it to the backyard cricket at home as a young boy. The Smiths had a small backyard; they cut the bat to have something shorter, and Peter would flick the ball, not bowl, at his son from eight metres.
The father has spoken about it. “You really had to watch the hand. There were off breaks, leg breaks, ones which break the other way. The name of the game was not to get out. I’m sure that helped him play spin. You just had to use your feet. If you played from the crease, you were always in trouble.”
Ear on the bat
However, it wasn’t his batting or fielding that captured Smith the cricketer and his value to this Australian team; it was an appeal. India’s hopes rested on Ajinkya Rahane and MS Dhoni in the chase, when Rahane poked at a slanting delivery from Mitch Starc. Nobody made any fuss. Not Brad Haddin the ‘keeper, not the bowler or the lone slipper Michael Clarke. But one man at covers was all agog. Smith’s hands shot up but seeing none of his team-mates appeal, he started waving his arms around and moved briskly towards captain and the keeper to urge them to go for the review. Haddin, a man who has been sort of a mentor for Smith, was convinced and asked for the review. Out. Game over. It was time for Elveses to leave the building.