Super Smith hands Australia Boxing Day edge

26 December 2019 01:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The Melbourne Cricket Ground's centre wicket might have loomed as an object of mystery to the record crowd that thronged today, but it proved familiarly obliging to Steve Smith in his triumphant return to Australian cricket's marquee occasion.

Before the largest Boxing Day crowd (80,473) to attend a non-Ashes Test for almost 50 years, Smith defied New Zealand's canny swing and uncomfortable bouncer bowling to lead Australia from early anxiety to 4-257 at day's end.

The large cohort of Kiwi fans who made the rare pilgrimage to Australia's cricket cathedral from across the Tasman or around the country began the morning in triumphant voice as their team threatened to dominate in bowler-friendly conditions.

But they ended in quiet admiration of the former Australia captain who took the field before lunch to a robust round of booing and left, unconquered, after almost five hours of batting 77 not out and with his fourth consecutive Boxing Day century from squarely on the cards.

The much-discussed MCG pitch proved a benign character in the day's slow-moving drama and, after offering early swing, gave up wickets and runs with equal reluctance despite its well-grassed appearance and recent rejuvenation.

The graft it demanded from batters and bowlers alike was not dissimilar to the decks produced in the past two years that saw India score 2-215 on day one in 2018 and Australia 3-244 against England a summer earlier.

Smith showed during his mastery of England during this year's Ashes campaign he's not daunted by difficult conditions that challenge his patience as much as his productivity.

But added to the sometimes sluggish nature of the pitch was New Zealand's adherence to the short-pitched bowling strategy that worked so effectively in Perth in the second Domain Test but which, apart from a few moments of discomfort, rarely ruffled Australia's pre-eminent player.

The hours that Smith had devoted at training over the past week, much of it spent perfecting methods of deflecting rib-seeking missiles safely to the ground, proved time well spent as he crafted his highest Test score since his record-breaking Ashes campaign in the UK.

Smith, in company with Marnus Labuschagne (63), Matthew Wade (38) and then Travis Head (25no) withstood another round of 'Bodyline-light' that sharpened their reflexes and focused their minds, but failed to deliver any wickets.

Rather, it was the full-pitched deliveries that swung in the comparatively cool Melbourne air or 'wobbled" off the wicket that caused most concern, and ultimately brought results.

New Zealand's first visit to the MCG for a Test match since 1987 had looked likely to deliver more bountiful rewards when their skipper, Kane Williamson, called correctly at the coin toss and let loose his seamers under thick cloud and on a grassed pitch likely to benefit bowlers.

Just how amenable those conditions were became starkly obvious from the third ball of the match that brought a huge roar from the considerable Kiwi contingent in the crowd, and a tinge of apprehension among the Australia batters.

Trent Boult, a sizeable loss to the Black Caps' attack when he missed the opening Test in Perth due to an ongoing rib injury, bent a textbook in-swinger through opener Joe Burns' bullish forward defensive push.

Burns has shown fallibility against the full, swinging ball more than once this summer, but there's been no more emphatic demonstration than the sight of his middle stump tilted at a 30-degree angle from the solitary delivery he faced.

The visitors' dream start meant Labuschagne was thrown into the contest with the ball brand new and the bowlers fresh, and it took the in-form batter more than a handful of deliveries before he was able to confidently find the middle of his previously broad blade.

With the temperature barely 18C – at odds with the desiccating Australia summer to date – and a gentle sou-westerly making it feel several degrees cooler, any potential menace posed by the maligned MCG was to come from the ambient conditions rather than a problematic pitch.

Indeed, so conducive was the weather to swing bowling that NZ's quicks rarely bothered to bang the ball into the deck to see if it developed the divots that had caused a Sheffield Shield match to be prematurely abandoned weeks earlier.

And on the rare occasions they did pitch short, the ball appeared to loop rather than leap from a pith that exhibited the sort of 'tennis-ball bounce' more regularly associated with next month's Australian Open in the same city,

However, within half an hour of play beginning the amount of swing dissipated to the point that Boult and Williamson made repeated entreaties to umpire Marais Erasmus for the ball to be changed.

They proved unsuccessful, but the introduction of Wagner brought the fortune the Black Caps sought when he removed David Warner, courtesy of a stunning slips catch from Tim Southee.

Warner had shown resemblance to the batter so haunted by swing and seam bowling in England earlier this year, and countered the Kiwis by playing the ball late with a reduced backlift to mitigate any movement in the air or from the surface.

But a blow to the chest he copped when a ball from Boult cannoned from the inside edge of his bat seemed to play on his mind, and he began to search for the ball rather than let it come to him.

On 41, he drove with feet planted at a full ball from Wagner that shaped away with the resultant edge flying sharply to the right of Southee who instinctively threw out a paw and completed the catch as he spun around.

For the first time this Test summer, Smith was at the wicket with less than 75 on the scoreboard and facing the additional scrutiny of a short-pitched bowling barrage that teams have come to recognise as the chink in his otherwise impervious armour.

With 20 minutes to withstand prior to lunch, Smith became annoyed when – in attempting to duck beneath yet another bouncer from Wagner – he was struck on the back and the leg-bye he completed was deemed illegal by umpire Nigel Llong which meant he had to return to the firing line.

Smith sought clarification from Llong as to the official's call of 'dead-ball' despite the batter's effort to elude the delivery, and the displeasure was heightened when Smith was forced to fend the next ball away from his nose.

But with the sun shining and the pitch flattening, Smith and his batting brother Labuschagne resisted the NZ push and slowly wrested back the initiative for the hosts.

It wasn't easy against the immaculately disciplined Black Caps seamers, and at times it was dour – particularly during the 20-over stint either side of lunch that brought just 38 hard-fought runs – yet the strategy gradually shone through.

NZ's hopes that spinner Mitchell Santner might maintain the stranglehold exerted by his fellow bowlers vanished in the space of seven deliveries as the Australia pair counter-attacked.

The 21 runs they tore from that over and a bit included a six over mid-wicket (by Labuschagne) from a rank half-tracker and then a dazzling strike over the bowler's head (by Smith) that came courtesy of some deft footwork.

Labuschagne reached his fifth half-century from as many consecutive Test innings after more than three hours at the crease, and seemed destined for his fourth hundred from four matches since being elevated to the number three batting berth.

The only times his wicket seemed at risk, having survived an initial examination with the new ball, was when he placed it in peril with his urgent running between wickets.

He should have been run out on 27 when he responded to Smith's apparent dash for a single only to be sent back, but the throw from Williamson at wide mid-off missed the bowler's end stumps with Labuschagne having abandoned all hope of regaining his ground.

On 33 he was forced to throw himself at the crease line to narrowly beat Wagner's direct hit from short fine leg, but his eventual dismissal (for 63) surprised nobody more so than the Queenslander himself.

Labuschagne has conspicuously adopted Smith's extravagant bat flourish when leaving balls outside off-stump, and doubtless wishes he had employed that method when shouldering arms to Colin de Grandhomme shortly before tea.

Batting outside his crease to reduce the effectiveness of de Grandhomme's late but gentle swing, Labuschagne offered no stroke to a ball that clipped the under-side of his right arm (near the elbow) and rebounded to the top of his off-stump.

The 25-year-old could not believe what had occurred, and pointed to his arm and then the broken wicket as if to indicate that turn of events was simply not fair and it should therefore not count as a legitimate dismissal.

At that stage, Australia were 3-144 and Wade was quite literally walking into the firing line as Boxing Day hung in the balance.

However, as was repeatedly the case in the UK when Ashes Tests were on the line, Smith proved unmovable just as Wade showed he was unbreakable and as much as the day proved a testament to New Zealand's character, the points were pocketed by their hosts.

 

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