Root’s side have al­ready shown us the blue­print for Ashes

The Sunday Guardian - - Sports -

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

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