With three centuries in four appearances, this is Smith’s favourite away ground. And on the big occasion, he didn’t disappoint
The Oval is not quite where it all started for Steven Smith - that was across the Thames at Lord’s in another neutral Test in 2019 - but it’s a ground that gave him a landmark moment, the first of what has now become a monumental 31 hundreds in 97 matches with the promise of more to come yet.
It was in the 2013 Ashes, in his 12th Test, that Smith was able to celebrate three figures for the first time. Having narrowly missed out a few weeks earlier at Old Trafford, the Oval was where the transformation from legspinning-allrounder to batting superstar took a major leap.
He was at it again in 2015 when he compiled 143 in a dead-rubber win after the Ashes had gone. And four years ago, he rounded out his triumphant return to Test cricket after the year-long ban with 80 in the first innings in the series that brought 774 runs in four matches. By the end of that game he was exhausted having barely slept through the series, finally flicking to leg slip where many a side has thought Smith could be vulnerable.
This year, The Oval will provide both the start and end to what could be Smith’s final Test tour of the UK, although he was playing the deadest of bats to any questions about his future ahead of the World Test Championship final, when asked in light of David Warner’s retirement plans.
After a somewhat uneasy start either side of lunch yesterday, he was soon into his batting bubble. He bided his time, at one stage being 36 off 127 balls as Travis Head went rampant at the other end, but once settled he was rarely troubled much except for a couple of edges that fell short of the slips. Even there, Smith has the skill of soft hands.
He waited for the loose deliveries, not least in bringing up the century which came with three consecutive boundaries across two days. He made a statement late on the first evening, driving the final ball of the day from Mohammed Shami beautifully wide of mid-off, then the first two deliveries he faced from Mohammed Siraj on Thursday were ill-directed on the pads and put away through the leg side.
“I really like playing at The Oval, I think my record here is probably as good as anywhere in the world,” Smith told Channel Seven before play resumed. “It’s a nice wicket to bat on, you get value for your shots here with the square going the whole way across [the ground].”
Smith was right about the ground, too. Of those he has played more than two Tests at, The Oval tops his average.
The brilliance of Smith was also highlighted by another adjustment to his game. The exaggerated movement back and across onto - or outside off stump - had returned having been put away for the last 12 months where he had been standing much stiller at the crease. It’s almost as if Smith has flicked the ‘Test cricket in England’ switch with seamless ease.
The fourth-wicket partnership grew to 285, nudging into Australia’s top ten for the fourth wicket, before Head finally fell on 163 to India’s short-ball tactic with a tickle down the leg side. Smith followed soon after for a 268-ball 121, playing-on to Shardul Thakur.
Head had made a noteworthy observation after the first day’s play, that so much energy from an opposition goes it what they will do against Smith that it can help the batter at the other end. It is perhaps sensible then, as James Anderson recently told the Age, that England are going to do less planning for Smith this time.
“I’ve always said that I do really enjoy batting with Steve because of how much attention he receives,” Head said. “He’s our best batter and unbelievable in these conditions and he receives so much attention from the opposition in terms of plans and how difficult it is to bowl to. It feels like you’re in the shadow of that and you can sort of sneak under the radar and go about your business because he’s drawn so much attention. Felt like that again [on the first day], it felt like he wasn’t going to go anywhere.”
In fact, the feeling was mutual. “I thought they were focusing a lot on Trav, the way he was coming out and scoring so quickly,” Smith said before he resumed on the second day. “It sort of just allowed me to just play. It felt like there wasn’t as much pressure on me at that stage.”
Such was the ease and control that Smith was playing with that it needed a second glance when he departed, inside-edging a slightly half-hearted push into his stumps against Shardul Thakur’s first ball of the day. Smith threw his head back, probably barely able to believe what had happened.
“I love playing over here in England. It’s a great place to play cricket. Hopefully the start of a nice summer for me,” he said before play. Another summer of Smith could well be on the cards. – Cricinfo