Manchester, 7 September, 2019: Steve Smith is on course to enjoy one of the most productive series by any batsman in Test history after he marked his return to Ashes action with a double hundred at Old Trafford.
The 30-year-old’s 211 was the centrepiece of Australia’s 497-8 declared on the second day of the fourth Test.
It was his third century in four innings this series following scores of 144 and 142 in the opener at Edgbaston — Smith’s first Test since completing a 12-month ball-tampering ban.
If those hundreds erased doubts about whether he would be the same stellar batsman after the traumatic events during a Test in Cape Town that led to his being stripped of the Australia captaincy and a lengthy suspension, Thursday’s innings put to rest fears of any lingering ill-effects after he was concussed by a Jofra Archer bouncer.
That blow to his then unprotected neck — he is now batting with a ‘stem guard’ — during the drawn second Test at Lord’s saw Smith ruled out of England’s dramatic one-wicket win at Headingley that levelled this Ashes at 1-1 with two to play.
Even after retiring hurt having been felled by Archer, Smith still came back out to make 92 — his lowest score of a series where he has now scored 589 runs at a colossal average of 147.25.
The most runs ever made by an individual in a Test series is the 974 compiled by Australia’s Don Bradman, widely regarded as the format’s greatest batsman, during the five matches of the 1930 Ashes in England.
Vivian Richards holds the corresponding record for four Tests, posting 829 runs during West Indies 3-0 win in England in 1976 where the ‘Master Blaster’ missed one fixture out of five through illness.
Both those marks may be beyond Smith.
But if Australia do retain the urn — and they were well-placed at the close with England 23-1, a deficit of 474 — this will undoubtedly be ‘Smith’s Ashes’.
Smith is regarded as the best “problem solver” in cricket today by Australia coach Justin Langer, himself a former Test batsman.
That quality, as well as his unorthodox shuffle across the crease, was evident as Smith took advantage of an unusually placid Old Trafford pitch.
“I think and visualise before I play where people are likely to bowl to me and where I am likely to score and try to picture fields that are set and play things over in my mind, where I am going to get runs and how they are looking to get me out,” Smith told reporters after stumps.
“Then out in the middle you have to adapt to whatever is thrown at you.” England, inevitably, after Lord’s, repeatedly tested Smith out with the bouncer.
But Smith, whose career Test batting average of 64.64 is second only to Bradman’s 99.94, reckoned England’s quicks, with the notable exception of Stuart Broad, had over-done the short stuff.
“I said before the game that if they bowl a lot at my head then they’re not bowling at my stumps and trying to get me out lbw and caught behind the wicket,” he explained.
“For them to go as short as they did and as early as they did with the new-ball, softened that ball up and played into our hands.”
The third double century of Smith’s 67-Test career, all of which have come against England, was not chanceless.
Archer dropped a caught and bowled chance when Smith was on 65 and he had made 118 when he nicked Jack Leach to slip only to be reprieved when a third umpire review revealed the left-arm spinner had bowled a no-ball.
“When I saw the foot over the line and (umpire) Kumar (Dharmasena) called me back I thought, ‘How good is this! I get to keep on batting’.
“Obviously I had some luck and I made the most of it from there.”
This innings also saw Smith extend his own record with an eighth successive Ashes fifty, but he was adamant in insisting: “It’s never easy.
“You’re playing international cricket against some quality bowlers. I’ll never say it’s easy.