Trust the lower order or farm the strike? Smith follows Waugh path but tail ends poorly after his crucial late error
Jules Winfield was a cold-blooded tactician when it came to executing a plan.
In his opinion, “blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children”.
Steve Smith tried to shepherd the tail-enders through the closing stages of Sunday’s Test loss to West Indies but the lower-order batters were no match for the great vengeance striking down upon thee from Shamar Joseph’s furious spell.
It is pure fiction, pulp or otherwise, for anyone to claim definitively that they know which method of batting with the tailenders is the better option.
Smith put his faith in Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood when the heat was on at the Gabba, following the example set by Steve Waugh a generation ago when he would trust his lower order to be able to negotiate their fair share of deliveries regardless of the situation of a Test.
It blew up in his face in the Boxing Day Ashes Test in 1998 when the last three wickets fell in the space of an over when he was at the non-striker’s end when England famously won their only match of that series in a 12-run thriller at the MCG.
But often Waugh’s ploy worked with brittle batters like Glenn McGrath, Stuart MacGill and Colin Miller riding sidesaddle in stubborn late partnerships.
The modern tactic, used probably most effectively in recent times by Ben Stokes in his memorable Ashes innings of defiance, is to try to put any delivery to or over the boundary from the first four balls of an over, steal a single from the fifth and hope the tailender can survive.
Infuriatingly, Tim Paine in 2019 and Pat Cummins last year, seemed content enough to have just one delivery per over at the batting bunny during these partnerships.
The tactic backfired badly in the Miracle of Headingley the first time around and nearly ended in an inglorious defeat again during last year’s Lord’s Test when Stokes whacked 155 in concert with Stuart Broad in a 108-run partnership in 20 overs of clinical mayhem.
When the wickets of Mitchell Marsh and Alex Carey, the last of his fellow recognised batters fell on Sunday, the Aussies were in strife at 6-136 still 80 runs shy of their target.
Smith was happy for Starc to go on the attack and the left-hander belted 21 from 14 to dominate their 35-run stand before a wild swing went skyward to the cover fielder.
Cummins didn’t last long, which was not what Smith was expecting after the skipper’s career-high 64 not out in the first innings.
Eight down and another 38 runs still needed, this is where Smith took the wrong option.
He allowed Lyon to shoulder the strike while the veteran spinner played his natural game of defending by attacking.
Lyon faced 20 of the next 34 deliveries, scoring nine of the 16 runs in the brief partnership either side of the delayed dinner break.
It was a massive gamble to let him face Shamar and Alzarri Joseph, who are not related by blood but share the common trait of bowling fast, hostile deliveries at tailenders.
Lyon compulsively plays shots to bouncers because he does not trust his defence to the short ball and so it was that he was out that way when he snicked Alzarri while trying to pull him to the deep.
It was only when Hazlewood arrived at the wicket did Smith start farming the strike.
And even then it was only for the first four deliveries each over. Surprisingly, even though he was lucky to survive a Shamar short ball that ballooned to the vacant gully with the field spread, Smith gave the Windies two shots at Hazlewood.
Shamar was on target with the first but wasted his next delivery by bowling well wide of the stumps, allowing Hazlewood to shoulder arms, the dream scenario for a No.11 in this situation.
After his ramped six the next over off Alzarri, the vice-captain again took a single on the fourth delivery and Hazlewood ended up facing three balls after the Windies quick overstepped on the first one. The umpire signalling no-ball, meaning you’ve still got two more to face is the nightmare scenario for a No.11 in this situation.
In what would be the final over of the extraordinary match, Smith again took a single as the runs required tally entered single digits.
Shamar has shown in just two Tests that he’s a quick learner and he reverted to what he later described as his philosophy of trying to hit the top of off stump and did just that with a delivery that most top-order batters would struggle to keep out, let alone a genuine rabbit like Hazlewood.
“It’s like any game of sport, you probably focus on the back end of the game, that’s your focus point but throughout the whole game, could we have found nine more runs here or there? There’s no doubt about it,” coach Andrew McDonald said.
It’s hard to be too harsh on Smith given he was the only Australian batter who stood up to the test as the pressure of a tricky run-chase intensified.
Coincidentally, the last time an Australian opener carried the bat was in 2011 when David Warner did so in just his second Test, which also ended in heartbreak when they lost by seven runs to New Zealand.
That defiant 123 not out from Warner proved he was not just a limited-overs whirlwind and could become a serious Test opener.
Whether Sunday’s knock from Smith is the precursor to a long stay in his new role remains to be seen but if he gets more help from his top-order colleagues, upset losses like this one will remain a rarity.