Silver lining for Oz: Steve Smith ends century drought

Vishal Menon
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Steve Smith last scored an ODI century exactly two years ago, against Pakistan at Perth. (PTI)

Pradeep Sahoo, the 34-year-old leg-spinner from Bhiwani, roped in as Australia's premier net bowler, is now an integral part of their limited overs set-up for close to a year. He termed Steve Smith as a player with an insatiable thirst for training and intense love for batting.

“He keeps batting for hours at the nets. At times, the coach (Justin Langer) would have to literally drag him out so that others can have a hit. Even after training, if he is not particularly happy with something, he would go for another batting stint. Always keen to improve, he keeps probing you with questions all the time," Sahoo explained. Not long ago, Langer had talked about how Smith would shadow practice even in the shower. Smith is absolutely obsessed about batting. This manic obsession has helped the former Australia captain make a seamless comeback with ridiculous ease, following his year-long suspension from the game for his involvement in the Sandpapergate fiasco in 2018.

After plundering runs in the Ashes, the 30-year-old followed it up with a string of decent scores in the recently concluded Test series against New Zealand at home. Smith once again found himself amongst runs in the ODIs as well —notching up a commanding 131 in the series finale against India at Bangalore. His ninth ODI century and third against India, propelled the visitors to 286/9, after taking first strike. This century was special because it was his first in two years, incidentally his last three-figure knock also came on the very same day against Pakistan in Perth. He had come close at Rajkot when he was dismissed on 98 but on Sunday he crossed the three-figure mark.

Steve Smith celebrates his hundred. (Source: PTI Photo)

Slow off the blocks

Despite the flourish in the end, Smith found it difficult to get off the blocks at the start. India captain Virat Kohli tried to exploit Smith's inherent weakness against the rising short-pitched deliveries, by employing a leg-slip and deep fine-leg. Smith almost fell into Kohli's trap, after he had barely managed to fend off a brutish short pitched delivery first-up from Mohammad Shami — pulling it with great discomfort for a boundary. Following that false start, Smith would struggle to rotate strike, and looked fidgety with every passing over.

To compound the agony, he would also get involved in a horror mix-up that led to the run out of his captain Aaron Finch. Perhaps, the presence of Marnus Labuschagne walking out in the middle to replace Finch provided Smith with a semblance of comfort. The two share a great rapport. In fact, Langer calls Smith and Labuschagne as “master and apprentice.”

It's not difficult to fathom why. Labuschagne got his much-awaited chance to reclaim his spot back in the Test squad during the Ashes last year after a vicious Jofra Archer bouncer left Smith with a concussion. Labuschagne has not looked back since, slamming four centuries earlier in the summer. This has enhanced his reputation no doubt, but he came to India for this 3-match ODI series with an aim to extend his glorious form and turn into an all-format run-scoring machine. On Sunday, the 25-year-old Queenslander took the pressure off Smith, by kick-starting his innings in singles and twos, interjected by the odd boundary. In only his third ODI, Labuschagne has given a great account of himself.

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He is a compact player, who plays close to his body and knows precisely where his off-stump is. He brought up his maiden ODI half-century with a sublime on drive off Shami. He didn't carry on for a big haul — getting dismissed for 54, courtesy a sublime diving catch by Kohli. The third-wicket alliance between the master and apprentice yielded 127 runs, and if anything, it only helped Smith to settle down. He nurdled and grafted his way back into gaining utmost fluency. Smith had already taken his tally to 77 by the time Labuschagne had departed, and continued in the similar vein, crossing his personal landmark in the 44th over.

On his part, Kohli perhaps missed a trick by not asking his pacers to persist with the short-pitched stuff. Instead, they were perhaps guilty of bowling too much on Smith’s pads. Following the century, Smith upped the ante, smoking an inexperienced Navdeep Saini for a boundary and a sensational wristy flick shot for a six. The beauty of his batting is the manner in which he manages to stay so deep in the crease, turning attempted yorkers to full-tosses.

He added 31 runs from his final 15 deliveries, but sadly for Australia, there wasn’t much support from the other end. Once Alex Carey departed for a promising 36-ball 35, it opened up the floodgates for India. Wickets fell in a heap, leaving Smith with the arduous task of dragging the score past the 300-run mark. He couldn't. But through this knock, Smith once again underlined his intrinsic value to his team, and his insatiable love for batting.