Root’s side have already shown us the blueprint for Ashes
The press conference was almost over, and Steve Smith had played most of it the same way he had just played England’s bowlers for eight and a half hours: delivery after delivery left outside the off stump. He was looking forward to getting back to the Australian dressing room and maybe treating himself to a nice, relaxing ice bath. Only one question remained. And as it turned out, the question was about England’s tactics. Good play. Steve Smith will always bite on a question about England’s tactics.
“I thought they were pretty defensive from the outset,” he said with a certain relish. “It was almost as though they were waiting for our batters to make a mistake. Unfortunately, the top four made those mistakes. But it felt like it was very defensive. It might be a series where boundaries are hard to come by. Yeah, I thought they were pretty defensive pretty early.”
Of course, when you’ve just batted over four sessions for 141 not out and put Australia in charge of the first Ashes Test, you can pretty much say whatever you want. And yet, in a way, it was perhaps the only loose shot Smith had played all week. For at stake here is not simply a tangential point of interest, but the battle that increasingly looks like underpinning this Ashes series: who benefits from an attritional series? And if we continue to get the sort of cricket we have watched over the last few days, who cracks first?
Smith was referring primarily to the deep-set fields installed by Joe Root in an effort to frustrate him and cut off his favoured leg-side scoring areas. At times there were six men on the legside, three in the deep, with no fielder in front of square on the off-side. “Boundaries were quite hard to come by, so it was just trying to get off strike,” he said. “They’re obviously trying a few things there, but it was about playing the ball on its merits, being really patient and waiting for them to bowl where I wanted them to bowl.”
Stuart Broad smiled when Smith’s “defensive” comments were put to him. “Perfect,” he said. “We know the Australians like to score quickly. If we can restrict them from scoring a lot of boundaries, then we’ll have periods of taking wickets. This pitch is pretty slow and flat and hard to get any movement out of, so as a seam bowler your job is to restrict scoring. Look, I think if Australia had got away from us, we’d have put a lot of pressure on ourselves.”
Broad also went into some detail on England’s plans to Smith. Root, in co-ordination with bowling coach Shane Bond and senior bowlers like Broad, has been busily assembling England’s bowling plans over the last few weeks. Together they studied every single one of Smith’s dismissals in Australia over the last four years, and noticed that for a player who loves to shuffle across his stumps, he hardly ever gets LBW or bowled. Attacking the stumps, therefore, was virtually a waste of time.
“A lot of the best batsmen in the world just don’t miss straight balls,” Broad said. “They don’t get LBW and bowled a huge amount. So it’s the outside edge that’s his biggest threat. He was incredibly patient, but if we get a pitch with any sideways movement or a bit more pace, it brings the edge into play.”
Except with the ball barely deviating off the straight, the slip cordon was largely an irrelevance too. Which was why England resorted to the quirkier tactics of trying to bounce him out, bore him out, and even giving him a single to get him off the strike. “The less balls we can bowl at Steve Smith, the better for us,” Broad said. “He played with a lot of patience, he was disciplined around his off-stump, but credit to our bowling attack. It must be one of his slowest hundreds.”
Smith won this battle. But England have still not given up hope of winning the war. And if these three days have taught us anything, they have given us a glimpse into how England are going to try and win this series: through containment, constriction, frustration, attrition.
England have repeatedly talked about trying to take Australia’s pace bowlers into “third and fourth spells”, and here again Broad outlined England’s intention to break Australia, slowly and over time. “If you get over 40 overs in a Test match, you get into critical workload,” he said. “The Australian bowlers are a spell off 40 overs. If we can show a lot of patience in that first hour, take them into 50-55 overs for the Test match, then we put ourselves in a great position.”
Of course, it’s an approach with risks of its own. And the ferocity with which Australia’s quicks roared in on Saturday evening suggested that they may be in fine fettle for some time yet. Meanwhile, it was England who seemed to be feeling the pace. Broad, Chris Woakes and Jake Ball all hit 88-89mph in their first spells on Friday - even James Anderson touched 85mph - but had slackened to around 81-84mph by day three. Anderson, meanwhile, was grimacing with a possible side injury. THE INDEPENDENT