A man forgets his good luck the next day but remembers his bad luck until next year. For England and Joe Root, by the second day of the Fourth Test, the heroics of Ben Stokes and the luck that they rode in the final hour at Headingley seems well forgotten.
Some lacklustre bowling, mediocre fielding and bizarre planning ensured that the Aussies are in a commanding position as they declared their first innings 497/8. England ended the day at 23/1 with the makeshift opener Joe Denly already in the sheds.
Identifying an area of weakness for Steve Smith is proving to be as difficult for bowlers as finding fresh superlatives to describe his brilliance. Into just his third Test match this year, Smith is now the leading run-scorer in Test cricket in 2019.
Smith started his day with a couple of back-to-back pokes outside off against Stuart Broad which made one wondered if a change in the day has affected his appetite. Everybody was quickly reassured when Smith asked the umpires to cover a screen of a van standing outside the ground that was reflecting the sun through a gap in a gate into his eyes and affecting his focus.
Jofra Archer’s first over after an ordinary first day was the only over where he was able to make some impact. After being beaten outside off on the first delivery, Smith caressed him for four of the second ball through a sumptuous back-foot drive. The third ball saw the first of many opportunities that England spilled on the day. Archer dropped a relatively easy return catch as Smith tried to drive him straight for four.
With three plays and misses in the first two overs to balls outside off, Broad and Archer, bizarrely changed their plan against Smith and opted to bowl bouncers. A strategy inspired by incidents from the Lord’s Test reaped no rewards as Smith’s patience and the true nature of the Old Trafford wicket helped him to duck away from all the 13 short balls bowled by Archer and Broad.
Smith scored 109 of the 151 he scored today on length or back of length balls. While a full-ish in the corridor of uncertainty caused a few plays and misses against Smith, just as they would to any good batsman, the England bowlers showed neither the patience nor the desire to ball a regular Test match channel.
Off-putted by Smith’s technique, England bowlers stuck to bowling length balls either to his stumps or outside-off. The genius of Smith had him score as many as forty runs on the leg-side from length balls bowled to him outside off.
Another chapter in a series of questionable decision-making was added when after taking the new ball, England Captain Joe Root asked Archer to ball around the wickets to Smith, a move that Archer was clearly unhappy with. In an attempt to try a different angle, the pacers bowled 19 deliveries to Smith from around the wicket yielding him 14 easy runs. The strategy was also defused by the execution when 11 of the 19 deliveries were sprayed down the leg.
Earlier in the day, Travis Head’s misery of facing pacers from around the wicket continued when Broad trapped him in front of the wickets in just the fifth over of the day. Matthew Wade, in an attempt to counter-attack Jack Leach has put his position in the side in jeopardy. He mistimed a heave to Root at long-on. Wade has given a growing list of his critics a fresh reason to question his position.
The Aussie captain, Tim Paine, short of runs in this series, then joined Smith in the middle. The duo played out the rest of the first session with ease as Smith crossed the three-figure mark for the third time in this series.
A second let-off for Australia occurred when Paine, probably affected by the break, reached out to wide one from Broad in the first over after lunch to offer a simple chance to Jason Roy who spilled it. Roy’s situation in this series can only be described by an old proverb that goes as – “When bad fortune becomes one’s companion, he will be bitten by a dog although mounted on a camel”
The moment that literally destroyed England’s body language came about when Smith, batting on 118, edged one to slip off Leach, who on replay was found to have overstepped. As England’s bowlers appeared to be going through the motions after this, Smith ensured a chanceless next phase to bring about his third double hundred in 67 Tests. An innings that saw almost all the shots in the book was ended by the first attempt at a reverse sweep. Ironically, the last time Smith got out to a reverse sweep in Tests was against the same bowler (Root) after a 200+ innings.
To rub salt to England’s woes, a fourth missed opportunity came in the 93rd over when a mistimed pull from Paine off Archer was dropped by the substitute Sam Curran at mid-wicket. On 49 then, a Jaffa from Craig Overton eventually dismissed Paine for 58 on the first ball after tea. Before Paine’s dismissal, he along with Smith added 145 runs for the sixth wicket to strengthen Australia’s position in the Test.
After Pat Cummins’s dismissal, Mitchel Starc, playing his first game in the series took the mantle to score quick runs. He hit Broad for four consecutive boundaries and was severe on Root as he hit him for two fours and a six. Starc brought up his half-century and looked more comfortable and in control than the other top-order left-handed Aussie batsmen.
Just like the first day, we saw some innovative interruptions. A reflection off a van was followed in the second session by a giant watermelon shaped balloon been blown by the wind at the pitch, probably indicative of the manner the ball appears to Smith.
Australian batsmen and Smith, in particular, have put themselves in a position from where it seems unlikely that they will lose this Test. The fate of England will largely depend on their first-innings performance as we enter into the moving days.