Steven Smith‘s innings at the SCG on Sunday felt like a highlights package and at the same time, it was a highlights package.
We might as well have been watching his spectacular display two days ago when he scorched a 62-ball hundred (that premise could have applied to most of Australia’s innings). Instead, we were watching it produced all over again: another 62-ball century, which if not for a slip of Marnus Labuschagne’s feet, would have been 61 deliveries.
On both these occasions he could not have wished for a better situation: the ideal foundation provided by David Warner and Aaron Finch, a flat pitch and a bowling attack struggling for any consistency and control. However, even though Smith’s batting feats have been mind-boggling in the past, it has been a particularly notable 72 hours for him.
Were we watching another evolution of Smith the batsman? This isn’t to say he was doing things that he hasn’t done before – he has a T20 century off 54 balls and has dissected many a bowling attack in the one-day format – but the sustained nature of the onslaughts felt different.
What the one-day game gives Smith is that one thing he loves: time at the crease. While Test cricket offers him his ultimate indulgence, the 50-over game allows him to evolve an innings.
He has not been slow at any point of these centuries, but in the first of them he was 30 off 30 balls and today was 21 at a run-a-ball. Then, the hands have really gotten to work. On Friday, he scored 75 off his remaining 36 balls and on Sunday he cracked 83 off 43 from the same position.
As is often the case with Smith’s batting, the standout feature has been the placement. The run towards his second century showed how he can work the field at will. A slower ball from Jasprit Bumrah was driven through backward point. In the next delivery, the most delicate of late cuts beat short third man. The final ball of the over was taken from around fourth stump to fine leg.
Facing Yuzvendra Chahal in the next over, there was a brace of scampered twos with perfectly paced shots either side of a straight six. The ball after reaching his hundred he played the most astonishing stroke of the innings, stepping right across outside off and scooping Hardik Pandya over fine leg, while ending up rolling in the crease. Next ball, Smith toe-ended a wide delivery to short third man. Despite everything he had done, he was still furious with himself.
Scores of 350-plus won’t be needed all the time, but on flat pitches like this, a team needs the ability to do it. Smith’s displays have been part of two hugely convincing Australia batting performances – this was their third-highest total, and Friday’s is also in the top 10. A longer run of matches, in a variety of conditions, and against some better bowling needs to be viewed before any significant conclusions are drawn, but there are signs that Australia’s one-day batting is undertaking the evolution it needed to remain with the leading pack.
The ODI series in England last year was won by a brilliant stand of 212 between Glenn Maxwell and Alex Carey and now the top order has filled their boots in these two games. Warner, who limped off with a serious-looking groin injury early in India’s chase, and captain Finch form a formidable opening pair: this year alone they have four century stands (three in three matches at the SCG) and during this partnership of 142, they went past David Boon and Geoff Marsh into third in Australia’s all-time list. Adam Gilchrist and Mark Waugh are just over 200 runs ahead of them, then there is work to do to catch Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden.
Then you have the engine room of Smith and Labuschagne at No. 3 and 4. The latter is still evolving as a one-day cricketer, but his 70 off 61 balls in this match, while not as dynamic as Smith, ensured things did not stall. And if Smith is bringing a new gear to his ODI batting, it will take the pressure off Labuschagne.
They are followed by a combination of allrounders, the central figure of which is Maxwell. His last five ODI innings have brought 294 runs at 73.50 and a strike-rate of 143.41 (and in this series it’s 108 runs off 48 balls). If Maxwell has found his home in the one-day side, so many of Australia’s plans will come together.
Given the uncertainty over the cricket calendar in a post-Covid world, it is not yet entirely certain when Australia’s next ODIs will be after this tour. Currently, it is scheduled to be a short tour to West Indies in the middle of 2021, but the match in Canberra on Wednesday will be the last on home soil until next season. Can Smith make it a hat-trick of hundreds? You wouldn’t put it past him.
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