Steven Smith's innings represented the newly responsible Australia
Oh hello there, responsibility. We’d forgotten about you. Where have you been hiding for so long?
Before this Test, Australia’s bowlers were outscoring, out-surviving and out-batting Australia’s batsmen. Their team’s highest individual score was by a 19-year-old at No. 11 and their 10th wicket partnership had scored more runs than any other. It was a bizarro world. A twisted world. A wrong world. Batsmen are selected to bat, but Australia’s weren’t batting—at least not properly.
They were displaying the concentration levels of rocking horses and the attention spans of sugar mice. They were, in the words of Darren Lehmann, playing “one-day cricket”.
Egotistical was the new realistical. Stupid was the new brave. Attack was the new defence. Reckless Australia was the new Australia.
But at Old Trafford, Australia remembered how to bat in Test cricket.
527/7 declared is their highest score away from home in a Test match since the Cardiff Ashes Test of 2009. Chris Rogers, Michael Clarke, Steven Smith, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Starc all played crucial innings—despite Clarke’s century dominating the scorecard and providing the anchor for the total, it was a team effort.
It was in many respects the perfect Test innings. A substantial opening partnership, backed up by significant middle order equivalents that blossomed as they progressed and then an injection of aggression and energy as the England bowler’s morale and fitness wore ever thinner. Runs were never easy to come by though. They had to be earned through hard graft and battle.
It was a situation that lent perfectly to the lesson Australia needed to prove they had learnt. A situation that required all of the qualities that have been absent thus far in the series: discipline, caution, circumspection, vigilance. And even when batsmen had moved their own scores from respectable to admirable, they continued to remain attentive and watchful. Only Smith’s dismissal, which was to a shot that was the exact antithesis of his entire innings, could be said to have been reckless.
At the close-of-play press conference, Clarke accurately analysed that this was the first innings of the series in which Australia didn’t lose wickets in clusters, an improvement that can be attributed to increased focus at the crease.
Admittedly, the pitch is placid and tranquil and batting hasn’t been easier thus far in the series, but England’s bowlers stuck to their task well and never made scoring runs trouble-free. Stuart Broad in particular refused to abandon his short-ball tactics to Clarke, and Graeme Swann’s five wicket haul was his first in the first innings of a Test in England.
Australia are a long way away from winning this Test. The pitch is flat and England’s batting is tailor-made for batting many, many overs. However, following the tragicomedy batting collapses at Lord’s and Trent Bridge, the intensely concentrated Australian batting effort proved to themselves what they are capable of and what is possible if they apply themselves suitably to the conditions.
Scoring the total Australia did required unwavering focus at the crease and a ruthless cold-heartedness that has rarely had the opportunity to be exhibited in recent times. Drip, by drip, by drop, monotonously and relentlessly, Australia’s batsmen cathartically ground their way towards restoration.
The batting performances in the first two Tests took Australia to the edge of their Ashes cliff, and perhaps the steepness of the drop and the horror of the visualized aftermath was what refocused their minds. Their fear of failure has conceivably been clarified by staring straight into the eyes of failure itself at 2-0 down in the series.
Nothing refocuses the mind quite so perfectly as defeat and humiliation. Perhaps Australia had to totally forget how to bat in order to learn how to bat again.