At the grand old Sydney Cricket Ground, a classical day of Test cricket played out. Steve Smith produced a greatness-affirming hundred for ages to keep Australia alive, Ravindra Jadeja ascertained his all-round value with a four-wicket haul and a devilish direct hit to keep India afloat, Shubman Gill stroked a graceful half-century, and Pat Cummins bowled robustly to end a see-sawing day on an even keel, with India progressing to 96/2 after Australia posted 338.
But for Smith’s captivating knock, Australia would have faltered; but for Jadeja’s 4/62 on a sluggish surface, India would have fumbled. Their direct combat barely threw up excitement — Smith dealt him with routine assuredness — but how they left their individual stamp on the game was the day’s moving narrative. It was akin to a movie with parallel heroes connected by the same plot.
Smith would remember this knock with fondness, not because it was his most difficult or sparkling one, but because of his recent slump in form. But he clarified to the broadcasters in a chat during the break: “Being out of runs is not the same as being out of form.” He, clearly, is judged by his own lofty standards, and hence the run of 14 innings without a hundred was enough to raise doomsday alarms. Rubbish, his bat seemed to announce with every splendid stroke that gushed from his bat. It was a flawless, inscrutable exhibition of batting.
Not at any micro-point of his 132-run stay at his home ground did Smith betray any hint of labour. There were times when he wore caution and shackled himself, when he counterattacked, when he had to shift gears, when he had to grit out, grind down and guide the lower order, but he donned each role with consummate perfection. As if he has everything hard-wired in his processor. Throughout the innings, Smith was composed, methodical and self-aware with the bristling confidence of a batsman at the peak of his powers. His innings was not a thing of beauty — but a masterful display on a day when no other batsman hinted at permanency.
What sets Smith apart from the heyday batting heroes of Australia is the team’s over-reliance on him. Not in this century could one think of a weaker group of Australian batsmen. Ricky Ponting had Matthew Hayden and Michael Clarke, Clarke had Mike Hussey and Smith himself. But Smith, often, has just Steve Smith himself. For long David Warner was a trusted ally, but he was found lacking on the last Ashes tour and is still not 100 per cent on his return from injury; Marnus Labuschagne is growing in stature, but has not yet fully ripened. Thus, Smith finds himself thrust into the boy-on-the-burning-deck role, more often than not.
As he had witnessed so many times in the last Ashes, Smith saw his colleagues flounder around him, to the wits of Jadeja. It was far from a cracking-up, dust-spewing Jadeja-kind of a surface, the sort of wicket on which he could be a wild destructive force of nature. It was one where his guiles rather than explosiveness mattered.
Jadeja smartly assessed the nature of the pitch. It was probably where he had to revert to pace and change of pace, flight and lack of flight, good length and change of length. The odd ball did kink and kick off the surface, but one couldn’t expect that on a consistent basis. Thus, his wickets owed more to sharpness of mind than tweaks and twerks of his fingers.
The left-arm spinner struck at uncanny moments too. Labuschagne was batting freely, nearing a century, and the 70-over-old ball was just a lump of leather when Jadeja sucked him into a playing a fatal cut shot. He pushed the batsman into his comfort zone, which is playing off the backfoot, before bowling a bit fuller. The ball was short, but not quite short for Labuschagne to cut behind point, as he had done earlier in the same over. The edge flew to Ajinkya Rahane at slip.
The wicket precipitated a collapse. Six overs later, the impetuous Matthew Wade perished attempting to chip Jadeja over midwicket. Wade had just straight-driven him for a boundary, before he swept him firmly for a brace. But Jadeja sensed it was a matter of time before the left-hander stepped out – like he had to Ravichandran Ashwin in Melbourne – and flung a flatter, faster one at him, that was miscued. Just before the new ball was due, Australia self-destructed.
Soon, Smith grew more urgent. Now had arrived the time to take calculated risks, for support at the other end was dwindling. He grew more expansive. Ashwin was swept behind square; Jadeja pummelled either side of the point fielder. So efficient was Smith that he seemed to have a symbiotic bond with the gaps. But the new ball accounted for Cameron Green and Tim Paine, both comfortably set up by Jasprit Bumrah. The usual double-bluff of peppering them with short-of-length balls before slipping a fuller, inward-bending delivery reaped rewards.
Unflustered, Smith produced his best stroke of the day, when he stood up tall and punched Bumrah through the covers off the backfoot. Navdeep Saini was then whip-driven through midwicket. At the other end, Pat Cummins was blocking assuredly. At that precise moment, when it seemed that the pair was dealing with the new ball-armed pacers efficiently, Rahane re-drafted Jadeja, who proved that maybe he should be trusted more often to wipe off the tail. He bowled Cummins with a floated delivery that dipped and snuck through beneath the bat. A full, fast ball cannoned into Nathan Lyon’s toe and he was adjudged LBW.
For the second time in the game, Jadeja had stamped his match-swaying quality. But Smith intervened. Past his hundred, with a thud off his toes, he unpacked his full range of strokes. He slog-swept Jadeja past deep square-leg, ramped Bumrah – of all people – before swatting him like he would a pesky bee through midwicket. A double-handed forehand to be precise.
But it was imperative that one of the parallel heroes died at the other’s hand. And thus, with a dead-eye throw from the deep — running, gathering and throwing in one fluid motion, a single-sequence shot — Jadeja ended a glorious hundred by the modern-day batting colossus. And for years to come, whenever memories of this match are dusted up, Smith and Jadeja would be at the different ends of the same conversation.
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