Australia captain Steven Smith admitted that he will have to find a slightly different way to bat after suffering a freakish blow to the hand at training. However, that is just about all Smith wants to change as the hosts chase the first of two wins that can give them a 5-0 Ashes whitewash to reprise those of 2007 and 2014.
Given the runs he foresaw on the surface, Smith was more than comfortable with the prospect of England pitching short at him to target his right hand, which was already sore from slips catching before it was struck by a ricochet from a Cameron Bancroft shot in the nets on Sunday. But that soreness is enough for Smith to concede that he may need to be a more orthodox, top-handed player in this match.
“I hope [they target my hand] on this wicket. It doesn’t have quite the same pace and bounce as the WACA did, so if you’re bowling that length out there, it’s not a bad thing,” Smith said. “I’ll still be [fielding] in the same spot. Maybe I’ll just have to use a bit more of my top hand throughout this game, a bit less wristy.
“It’s more the back of my hand. I copped a few in the nets in Perth and a few more in the game, and it just seems to be whenever you’re getting hit in a spot it just continually gets hit. Yesterday was a little bit bizarre. The ball came over the nets, I didn’t see it, someone called heads, I sort of tried to put my head down and of course it hit me in the same spot. It was a little bit sore playing a few shots after that. It was a little bit sore today playing a few different shots, but I’ll be able to deal with it and l get on with it.”
The decision not to risk Mitchell Starc’s bruised heel on Boxing Day was given further context on match eve as Smith stated how flat and unforgiving the MCG’s drop-in pitch appeared to be. While the surface has, in past years, been left with some moisture in it to aid bowlers in the early stages, Smith said this time it had been ready to play on for several days already – reverse swing looms as one way to break any batting deadlock that ensues.
“The wicket’s been pretty good, pretty flat the last few years. It looks much the same this year,” Smith said in Melbourne. “It was probably ready to go three days ago. It’s a wicket that really hasn’t broken up much over the last few years, it’s stayed pretty good for five days. Hopefully, I can cash in again this week. It doesn’t look like there’ll be great deal of sideways movement, maybe a bit of reverse swing as the game goes on. But it looks a pretty flat wicket.
“We’ve been able to get results here in the last couple of years. Hopefully we can do that again. We’re going to have work hard, first-innings runs are going to be crucial again. Hopefully, we can get the ball reversing, and hopefully, there’s a little bit of spin for Nath [Lyon]. He didn’t get a great deal last game at the WACA, the ball just went straight on for pretty much everyone. So if there’s a little bit of spin, it’ll certainly bring him into the game as well.”
The inclusion of Jackson Bird for Starc will offer Smith the chance to operate with a somewhat different bowling balance. The Tasmanian can deliver longer spells that in turn should allow Pat Cummins, in particular, to stay at his optimum pace in shorter bursts. Bird has previously enjoyed success taking the new ball on Boxing Day, on debut against Sri Lanka in 2012, but Smith stopped short of saying who would share the new ball with Josh Hazlewood.
“He deserves a go, he’s worked very hard,” Smith said of Bird. “He hasn’t played since this game last year. He’s been on a few tours, guys have come in and jumped him. He’s been great around the group.
“He works incredibly hard, and when he’s gone back to Shield cricket, he has dominated. He bowled exceptionally well in the first couple of Shield games this season. He bowls well out here, so he deserves a crack and hopefully goes really well.”
Having secured the Ashes in the minimum three matches, Smith said he had not yet pushed the concept of 5-0 with his players, preferring to maintain the level of focus on the next game that had served Australia well in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. For all their success this summer, it should not be forgotten that this is still a young team with a spotty record – as of this match they remain the No. 5-ranked team in the world.
“We’re obviously pretty confident, it’s been a good summer so far,” Smith said. “We’ve won back the urn, which was the objective at the start of the series. We’ve now got an opportunity to keep winning, that’s been my message to the boys: don’t worry about 5-0 at this stage, you’ve got to win this one first and keep winning games of cricket. Winning can become a habit. For us, it’s about staying in those good habits.”