As Australia ground their way to an MCG stalemate with England on a pitch that possessed qualities of indestructibility on par with a cockroach, the two men at the crease were suspects usual and unusual. Taking the hosts to lunch effectively 4 for 14, there was still a glimmer for Joe Root’s team, and they did not technically need to dismiss the currently “unbowlable” Steven Smith to get there – six other wickets would do just as nicely.
Instead, the tourists found themselves frustrated by the No. 6, Mitchell Marsh, who negotiated a few awkward early moments against the reverse-swinging ball before slipping into a supporting role that would have made his father Geoff Marsh, a stodgy opener who once batted all of 628 minutes for 355 in a Sheffield Shield match, doubly proud. Where Marsh had joined Smith in a domineering partnership on a faster pitch in Perth, here he provided a two-footed defensive wall that England could not surmount.
In the aftermath of a match that averted the prospect of a whitewash for England and will surely bring about plenty of introspection at the Melbourne Cricket Club about the moribund state of its drop-in Test pitch, Smith was most proud of how Marsh had adapted. He revealed, too, that Marsh felt he had broken new ground, playing the sort of innings he had been neither technically nor temperamentally capable of the previous summer.
“Really pleased with him, the way he played,” Smith said of Marsh. “Walking off today he actually said ‘I’m proud of myself, 12 months ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that’. He’s come a long way. Obviously, he had to change the way he normally plays, he’s normally very aggressive and very positive. To face 160 balls for his 30-odd was a really good effort.”
Given how thoroughly he has dominated England with the bat, Smith needs only to find someone capable of batting with him for extended periods to ensure Australia’s safety from defeat or launchpad for victory. At various points in this series, he has had help from Mitchell and Shaun Marsh, Pat Cummins, Usman Khawaja and David Warner. While the likes of Khawaja and Cameron Bancroft have endured disappointing series, “Smith and [insert team-mate’s name here]” has generally been good enough.
“I’ve spent a lot of time out there throughout this series and this hundred and obviously the hundred in Brisbane were two of my slowest,” Smith said. “I’ve had to work really hard but I feel like my game is in really good order. I’m adapting to each of the bowlers, changing my plans to them and how they’re trying to get me out. I’m making sure that I’m in front of the game as much as possible and hopefully I can just keep working and keep getting better as well.
“I just want to be out there batting. I don’t actually like watching cricket that much and would prefer to be out there batting and just getting the job done. That’s part of it but you’ve just got to try and stay as focused as you can each ball and treat every ball like a different challenge and get through as many as you can and that’s what I’m doing at the moment.”
There has been mounting praise for Smith throughout this summer, coinciding with how he has carried on adding relentlessly to his series aggregate while steadily climbing the list of Test run-makers at an average that currently leaves him second only to Don Bradman. In Melbourne he shrugged off a sore right hand in the first innings by utilising a noticeably lighter bottom-hand grip on the blade, and by day five was back scoring in more typical fashion.
“Shame we had to call it off in the last hour, could have had another hour out there,” Smith quipped. “It’s good fun. I’m enjoying it at the moment. I feel like I’m hitting the ball really well and hopefully I can end the series really well in Sydney.
“I read different things that people write but in the end I don’t think about it, I just go out and play and try and get better each and every day. Playing this game you can never be satisfied and never think you’re too good for the game, the game can come back to bite you pretty quickly. Got to work hard and each time I go to middle make sure I’ve got my routines and try and get myself in the zone each and every single time and want to bat and make runs and get Australia in good positions.
“Hopefully I’ve got a few more left in me. I feel like I’ve certainly got a lot more cricket left in front of me. I love to make more big runs and help Australia win games and series. I don’t play for the personal accolades, I play to do everything I can for Australia and as a captain leading from the front and trying to do my job as a batsman. Hopefully I can get a few more big runs and help Australia win a few more games.”
Assessing the way the Australians had fallen behind in this match, Smith said that a lack of concentration with the bat on the second morning had been damaging, but denied there was any sense of “dead-rubber syndrome” about the lapse. “We let ourselves down a bit in the first innings,” he said.
“We were in a pretty good position after the first day, three down and then we lost 7 for 60, and from there were a little bit behind the game – 350 just not enough in the first innings. Credit to England, thought they bowled really well in that morning and throughout the day and then obviously I dropped a couple of chances as well and that probably cost us quite a bit. Just hard to get in front of the game and try to get a result on that wicket.
“You’ve still got to put it out of your mind and just continue to try and play good cricket and win the game for your team, dead rubber or not, it’s still a Test match and each Test means something to each and every one in both change rooms. No one ever thinks of anything as a dead rubber as a player, you just do everything you can do to win.”
Australia’s priorities will be given further clarity once the team travels to Sydney for the final Test of the series. Ashton Agar has returned to the squad as the second spin bowler, having worked nicely opposite Nathan Lyon in Bangladesh earlier in the year, while Smith and the selectors will wait to decide whether or not Mitchell Starc’s heel has recovered sufficiently for consideration. One thing is for sure, all are relieved that Starc was not subjected to five days of toil on the MCG pitch.