Joy for Paine as Root Licks His Wounds

In The Ashes by Bill Ricquier

This has been the best Ashes series for some time, probably since 2009. In 2015 England won 3-2, which makes it sound close, but none of the matches provided anything like a tense finish, even though there were thrilling passages of play, like Stuart Broad’s spell on the first day at Trent Bridge.

The matches this summer have been interesting, even exciting. There was a fascinating draw at Lord’s, the “miracle at Headingley”, and then the fourth Test at Old Trafford, where, even though the margin of victory was substantial, the fifth day saw England in a real struggle for survival. Even the first match, at Edgbaston, despite the flatness of the finale, had plenty of ebb and flow. There were also the back stories, the return of the “Sandpapergate” trio to the Australian side, and Jofra Archer’s Test debut. The Ashes has contributed as much as anyone could have hoped to this amazing summer of cricket.

On paper the two sides did not look that far apart but at the end of the day England just weren’t good enough or consistent enough. At the start everyone knew the bowling attacks were good but the batting a bit iffy. England were very unlucky to be deprived of James Anderson for the entire series apart from four overs at Edgbaston. But Broad led the attack brilliantly, while Archer made a huge impact at Lord’s and bowled very well at Headingley. But Australia’s pacemen, particularly Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins seemed more consistently threatening. They were both exceptional at Old Trafford, while England’s bowlers, apart from Broad, were lacklustre on the first day, and then in the second innings Joe Root seemed reluctant to drive home the advantage when Australia were reduced to 44 for four.

But the real difference between the sides was Steve Smith. He couldn’t bat in Australia’s second innings at Lord’s, and they nearly lost. He missed the game at Headingley, and they lost. His lowest score in the series so far is 82.

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Smith now has eleven Ashes centuries. Only two men have more: Don Bradman with 29, and England’s Jack Hobbs with twelve. These are undoubtedly the two greatest batsmen to have played Ashes cricket. Bradman of course is of the scale. Hobbs played 41 Tests against Australia, had 71 innings and averaged 54.26. Smith has played 26 Tests against England, had 46 innings and averages 65.78. Bradman’s Ashes average was 89.78. Of batsmen who have made 2,500 runs in Ashes Tests, the only other one with a higher average than Smith is England’s Herbert Sutcliffe (66.14).

Leaving aside, for now, what this tells us about the strangely unheralded Sutcliffe, the comparisons that people have been making for some time now between Smith and Bradman are very noteworthy. Obviously Smith is never going to average 99.94; nobody ever will. Smith is not the first Australian batsman to be hailed as “the new Bradman”. Norman O’Neill and Doug Walters, among others, have had that fate. But the comparison has never been as meaningful as it is with Smith.

There is something Bradmanesque about Smith. He is different from all his contemporaries just as Bradman was. Bradman seems to have been, technically, more “proper” than Smith. Smith just looks so odd, and his quirks and eccentricities are becoming more extraordinary as time passes. There was none of that with Bradman. He looked more normal than anyone else, not less so. What they clearly have in common is incredible mental strength, and an unrivalled capacity for decision making in respect of precisely how and where to hit a moving ball with a piece of wood. And nobody knows how to get them out. England tried Bodyline against Bradman, which worked up to a point, before the law changed. People say Smith has a “weakness” against left arm spin: pity about Jack Leach’s no ball at Old Trafford – Smith “only” had 113 then. Archer clonked him alarmingly at Lord’s but – well, look at his comeback after missing Headingley.

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In terms of pure numbers Bradman of course far outshone his contemporaries but he had some great players around him. In his early days there was Bill Ponsford, another run machine. There was Stan McCabe who played some of cricket ‘s greatest innings, including 187 at Brisbane in the Bodyline series. After the war there were Arthur Morris and Neil Harvey (who, wonderful to relate, attended the Lord’s Test). And Smith had, well, nobody really. David Warner couldn’t buy a run. Marnus Labuschagne looked promising, and tough. Matthew Wade got a hundred when England were struggling at Edgbaston. That was about it really. If runs were to be had, Smith had to get them.

Tim Paine came good with vital runs at Old Trafford and led well there too. People thought he had left his declaration a bit late but that first amazing over from Cummins, when he dismissed Rory Burns and then Root first ball, made it look like a stroke of genius. He had a very difficult time on that astonishing final afternoon at Headingley but, in the context of the series as a whole, the most remarkable thing about Headingley is how strongly Australia came back after it.

That must be at least partly attributable to Paine. He has turned out to be a quietly heroic figure. He was given a very difficult job after the fallout from Cape Town, and had a trying few months, losing the home series to India. Even this summer people have been talking up the chances of Alex Carey (Wade, too is a wicketkeeper of course) and there has been endless speculation about when Paine will be replaced. And he has quietly gone on with the job and he seems to have done it very well. Australia have not won a series in England since 2001. They haven’t won this one yet, but the main objective, of retaining the Ashes has been achieved.

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Poor Root will be desperate to win at The Oval. When Australia were last in England he and Smith were vying, with Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson, for the title of best batsman in the world. That seems a long time ago now. His increasingly haunted look as he stands at slip tells its own story.

Root is a victim really. I have said numerous times in these posts that the England and Wales Cricket Board’s approach to the structure of domestic first-class cricket is, in effect, an attack on Test cricket. Australia seem much more committed to the format than England do.

Selection seemed odd at times too. You couldn’t blame the selectors for having a go with Jason Roy, but he and Joe Denly together in the top four is not hugely encouraging. “Oh, my Cook and Trott long ago!” Of course they do make good selections sometimes. Remember Sam Curran and Ben Foakes? What happened to them?

Bill Ricquier

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