Smith is back but fate of urn rests on sup­port act

Labuschagn­e ex­cepted, Aus­tralia’s top seven need to fire to re­tain the Ashes, says Tim Wig­more

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Sport / Fourth Specsavers Ashes Test -

‘Like the World XI at one end, and Il­ford sec­ond XI at the other,” Gra­ham Gooch once said of the con­trast be­tween fac­ing Richard Hadlee and the rest of New Zealand’s at­tack. The line could eas­ily be adapted to en­cap­su­late the con­trasts in Aus­tralia’s top-or­der bat­ting so far this sum­mer.

This Ashes, Aus­tralia’s No4 – Steve Smith and then Mar­nus Labuschagn­e – have a com­bined 591 runs at 98 apiece. Mean­while, the rest of Aus­tralia’s top seven have 660 runs be­tween them at an av­er­age of a shade un­der 19. Viewed in this light, per­haps it is Aus­tralia, rather than Eng­land, who should be grate­ful to get to the fourth Test locked at 1-1 in the se­ries.

Thanks to Smith’s re­turn, Aus­tralia will have both Smith and Labuschagn­e to­gether for the first time this se­ries, with Labuschagn­e pro­moted from four to three. And yet, for all Aus­tralia’s ex­cite­ment over the re­turn of the world’s best Test bats­man, this will be tem­pered by the sense that the rest of the top or­der need to bat far bet­ter if Aus­tralia are to re­tain the urn.

The treat­ment of Us­man Khawaja amounts to ac­knowl­edge­ment of as much. Khawaja has played in every Aus­tralian Test since Novem­ber 2017, and has been touted as a fu­ture Test cap­tain. Yet now Aus­tralia have de­cided to dis­pense with their No3 in the reshuf­fle.

“Us­man’s ob­vi­ously a key player in our side bat­ting at three and he hasn’t scored the runs that he or we would like, so with Steve Smith com­ing back it was a tough de­ci­sion to make on Us­man,” Tim Paine, the Aus­tralia cap­tain, said. “But we think he’s still got a lot of cricket left in him. He’s had a very good Test record over his career, and we ex­pect he will bounce back pretty strongly.”

The prob­lem for Aus­tralia is where that fine Test record has been built. Khawaja’s over­all Test av­er­age is an ad­mirable 41.

But few play­ers in his­tory

have had such im­bal­anced records. A Test av­er­age of 53 in Aus­tralia plum­mets to just 29 over­seas. In six Ashes Tests in Eng­land, Khawaja av­er­ages just 20, with a top score of 54.

In this light, Khawaja can hardly grum­ble about being omit­ted. Yet in a broader sense, Khawaja can per­haps con­sider him­self un­lucky. Af­ter all, three of Aus­tralia’s top seven who will take the field at Old Traf­ford do so with a worse record this se­ries than Khawaja.

Partly, of course, this be­trays the sim­ple ar­du­ous na­ture of bat­ting in Test cricket in 2019: across all Tests last year, the av­er­age num­ber of runs per wicket was just 27 – the low­est fig­ure for 61 years. And many of the same broader rea­sons for the malaise in Eng­land’s Test bat­ting could as eas­ily be ap­plied to Aus­tralia, too.

Just as in Eng­land, the Aus­tralian nursery for Test cricket has been shunted to the mar­gins of the sea­son. And, just as in Eng­land, the al­lure of the cash play­ers can earn in Twenty20 cricket has en­cour­aged more of a fo­cus upon these skills.

For Aus­tralia, the up­shot has been un­palat­able bat­ting re­turns ev­ery­where bar No4. Twelve in­nings by open­ing bats­men have pro­duced just a soli­tary in­di­vid­ual score above 20. David Warner has av­er­aged 13. While Matthew Wade made a cen­tury at Edg­bas­ton, he has passed six only twice in six in­nings – even though, with the ball softer and the bowlers tir­ing, No 6 should nom­i­nally be a far eas­ier time to bat.

Aus­tralia’s No 7 is far­ing even worse. Paine av­er­ages 12.86 – num­bers more be­fit­ting the wick­et­keeper for Il­ford sec­ond XI, than the cap­tain of Aus­tralia’s Test team. The sum­mer in which Gooch made his re­mark, 1986, Eng­land still lost the se­ries: Hadlee took 19 wick­ets in the se­ries, even as none of his team-mates mus­tered more than six.

But Aus­tralia know they can­not ex­pect to re­tain the Ashes while the re­turns from their top seven re­main so wildly di­verg­ing. And so, for all of Smith’s bril­liance, and the out­stand­ing im­pres­sion of him from Labuschagn­e so far, the sense is that the fate of the urn de­pends on which of those two ex­tra­or­di­nary num­bers – 98, for Smith and Labuschagn­e; and 19, for the rest of the top seven – come to look less re­mark­able by the sum­mer’s end.

Lone fur­row: Steve Smith has scored 378 runs in three in­nings

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