It is that man again, Steve Smith. He crunched his second hundred of the series, the third successive against India, to orchestrate what was, in the end, a routine 51-run victory that sealed the series with a match left. A slow head-turner he might have been in white-ball cricket, but Smith’s surely making up for lost time with scintillating consistency.
The twin hundreds seemed identical. The stroke-making on Sunday, though, was a notch or two more outrageous. Sample some of these.
In the 39th over, with Smith nudging into the 70s, Mohammed Shami flings in a near-perfect yorker. Fast, flat, in-swinging, on middle stump and landing at the edge of the crease. Smith just backs away, and without not so much as digging the ball out of the block home, bludgeons it through the covers. For a second, the world around Smith seemed to stop, wondering how to respond to the stroke. The fielders froze, skipper Virat Ko3hli looked overstrung. Even Smith’s eyes got wider, for he would not have expected such divine timing.
The stroke was just the preface to more incredible shot-making that was to follow. Next over, Smith ran Jasprit Bumrah ragged, not an everyday occurrence. Smith usually stands deeper than most batsmen, but he went further deeper this time, and converted a standard yorker (to most other batsmen) to a full ball that burned the bright green grass of the SCG behind the square region.
It was a moment from which even Bumrah could not bounce back. Immediately, the bowler stationed another man in the region, before pulling his length back and getting his line wider. Maybe, Smith would slice a catch into the hands or target a different arc. Smith took it as a challenge — and slapped one between the newly-stationed backward point and the wicketkeeper. Burmah lost it — the next ball was the juiciest full ball that Smith somehow contrived to miss before he consoled himself with a flick through backward square leg. Even the ever-smiling Bumrah struggled to force a smile.
Soon after reaching his hundred, Smith unfurled the most ridiculous of strokes — he threw himself at the line of a wide Hardik Pandya ball, not quite dissimilar to the diving catch he took to dismiss Shreyas Iyer later in the day, before scooping it over fine-leg. He was off-balance when he completed the stroke and landed a good couple of metres outside the 22-yard strip. Call it the flying scoop.
There were other typical traits too — the seemingly risk-free flicks through the leg side, the firm-footed drives, the merciless punishing of bad balls, and the constant impression that the pitch is five yards longer when he is on strike.
In the middle of the carnage, Kohli, the bowlers, the strategy panel and the rest, all looked utterly blanked. How could anyone stop Smith, unless he decides to stop himself? He did eventually, but not before drilling a hole in India’s comeback hopes and leaving a deeper dent in the mind of their bowlers.
If India hoped they could gloss over the cracks of their bowling furniture, they were utterly mistaken. Smith only magnified their weaknesses. Worryingly, it’s not the much-storied shortage of the sixth-bowler that hurts them the most, but deeper problems. It’s not merely a problem with personnel, but with strategy and methods too.
The visitors conveyed the impression that they were over-relying on Bumrah and Shami. But on days when their best get caned, who does Kohli turn to? Not Navdeep Saini, who somehow has lost his sharpness and snappiness. He struggled for the length that has earned him recognition — back of length. Either he was too full or too short. And often wayward.
Yuzvendra Chahal – one of the snazziest bowlers in the IPL, has struggled to adapt to the conditions. Spinners who are relatively slower in the air and don’t turn the ball much are prone to struggling in Australian conditions. He hardly purchased fizz off the surface, and his low-trajectory release does not help him in coaxing over-spin either. So if the team’s third and fourth bowlers are struggling, the burden on the first and second only increases.
Strangely, there seems to be confusion in harnessing the best out of them. Confounding was the tactic to dispense Bumrah with just a two-over spell upfront. It’s probably the only time the Kookaburra swings around. It’s not a T20 game wherein your gun bowler needs to be preserved for the death.
It’s not like Bumrah was scattergun. He had conceded just seven in two overs, when Saini steamed in. His first ball was struck for a six. Already nervous after the first outing, wherein he had conceded 83 runs, the youngster wilted away. And by the time Bumrah returned in the ninth over, Australia had raced away to 50 for no loss with Saini accounting for 21 of them. The decision reeked of a defensive mindset — and it backfired. The strategic faux pas only played into the hands of David Warner and Aaron Finch, who added a match-shaping century partnership for the second consecutive instance. Bowling teams seldom recover from scores of 142/0 or 156/0 even if they possess a destructive arsenal of batsmen themselves. Even though most Indian batsmen have looked in glorious touch, chasing 370-plus is difficult.
In the magnificence of Smith, the openers’ contributions are often ignored. But the sturdy foundation they lay goes a long way in furnishing Smith the best conditions to bat. There is no doubt that in this divine touch, Smith might not be spending sleepless nights worrying about the new ball, but it remains the best chance to get him early. Especially against Bumrah, whose trickery and pace could pose a significant threat to any batsmen.
But on Sunday, Bumrah was reduced to guest appearances. He was used in six spells of 2, 1, 1, 2, 1 and 3 overs. Resultantly, he seemed bereft of rhythm and precision, reducing the much-hyped Smith-Bumrah duel into a show of one-upmanship with Smith caning him for 35 runs off 17 balls.
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