Chris Waters: It’s just like Steve Smith has never been away at Old Trafford

Australia's Steve Smith celebrates reaching 200 runs at Old Trafford.
Australia's Steve Smith celebrates reaching 200 runs at Old Trafford.
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TO the question “will Steve Smith still be the same player after being hit on the head by Jofra Archer?” we can safely answer in the affirmative.

Smith is still the same phenomenon that he was before Archer landed him that terrible blow at Lord’s, the same perplexing puzzle to which England have found no solution.

Smith’s numbers are so unbelievable, so utterly far-fetched, that they are the cricketing equivalent of an MP’s expense claim. His 211 on day two at Old Trafford followed scores in the series of 144, 142 and 92, the “failure” of 92 coming when he inexplicably padded up to a straight ball from Chris Woakes after Archer had left him dazed and confused.

Smith’s previous eight Ashes innings prior to this series were 143, 141*, 40, 6, 239, 76, 102* and 83, making it 1,419 runs in his last 12 Test innings against England at an average of 141.90.

If he does not haunt England captain Joe Root’s nightmares like a cricketing Cyclops, it can only be because Root is getting no sleep with this genius afoot.

Had Smith been fit to play at Emerald Headingley, instead of recovering from the effects of delayed concussion, we can safely assume that the Ashes would already be staying with Australia, which they will should they win either of the last two Tests or if both are drawn.

Without Smith, Australia’s batting looks about as collectively effective as a sword in a gunfight.

With him, they have a one-man run-machine capable of winning the series almost single-handed; the Archer bouncer, if anything, has fired him up more.

A more pertinent question concerning Smith is “how does he do it?” His consistency is incredible, his concentration amazing.

To come back after “sandpaper-gate” and to score three hundreds in four innings, and so nearly four in four, makes Ben Stokes’s post-Bristol “redemption” seem trivial by comparison.

Meanwhile, those who continue to boo Smith for his part in the Cape Town ball-tampering scandal are probably the sort of people who own particularly annoying dogs, who drive with their arm dangling out of the car window during the summer months and who are to be found talking loudly into their mobile phones in the quiet coach of a train, uttering the magic words “I’m on the train”. In other words, attention-seekers lacking in any self-awareness.

Smith has never been a particularly attractive batsman, but it’s not how you get your runs, but how many. No one has got them more consistently since Don Bradman, another machine-like figure.

Smith’s movements are jerky and he fidgets constantly, as if to stand still for a minute would freeze him to the spot. He has innumerable quirks and changes his gloves more often than a serial killer – the sort, of course, who is never apprehended.

Smith wasn’t even at his best yesterday but it didn’t matter. As Australia took their first innings score to 497-8 dec, England replying with 23-1, he was jittery at first, occasionally fortunate, in between supreme flashes of idiosyncratic flourish. But England were not good enough to take their chances and may yet lose the Ashes as a consequence.

Smith, who began the day on 60, was dropped on 65 by Archer in his follow-through, a difficult chance but one that should be grasped at the highest level. More culpably, he was caught on 118 at slip off a Jack Leach no-ball, the spinner going from Headingley hero to zero in the space of a few days. In addition, Australia captain Tim Paine was dropped twice as England’s fielding floundered.

Things got so bad that when a giant inflatable melon rolled on to the field during the afternoon, which Stokes kicked away to loud cheers, the cheap but not entirely inaccurate thought crossed one’s mind that it wasn’t the only melon out there from an English perspective.

Nor was the body language great; when Root motioned to Archer to try his luck from around the wicket, Archer shot back a “who, me?” expression, which is not what you want to be seeing from one of your bowlers.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter what England tried.

Smith, who was finally out reverse-sweeping at Root in the quest for quick runs, was far too good, far too inventive, far too brilliant for Archer and co, as though he’d never been away, rumours of a decline to mere mortal status wreaked by Archer’s bouncer grossly exaggerated.