posted on 2019-08-12 21:09:16
posted by Michael Harrison
Image courtesy: India Today
Not many would have predicted Australia to take the lead in the ongoing 2019 Ashes. Certainly not with the opening Test scheduled at Edgbaston, a ground where the visitors hadn't beaten England across formats since 2001. There was an apparent psychological advantage to the venue for the home side.
Australia's first-ever World Cup semifinal defeat came at the very ground not too long ago and hence, it seemed like the odds were stacked heavily against them. Everyone spoke so much about Australia's problems that they forgot England's. The hosts had been fragile in their batting for far too long but they didn't realize a bigger concern - Steve Smith.
Being slapped a 12-month ban at the peak of your career can sting wildly and when Smith returned to international cricket at the 2019 World Cup, his body language indicated that he was keen on redemption. He did produce some priceless knocks but it was Test cricket where he had been reigning supreme and the Ashes was what everyone were looking forward to.
The result: Twin tons to orchestrate an Edgbaston siege as Australia took the series lead with an emphatic win. It was Smith's sixth Ashes ton in his last 10 innings and he had taken his overall Ashes tally to 10 to be only behind Sir Donald Bradman (19) and Jack Hobbs (12). Also, he became the second-fastest to 25 Test centuries after The Don himself.
This is a puzzle England must solve because it's more than a headache right now. Not having control over Smith will also derail the hosts' planning regarding the kind of pitches they would want, going forward in the series. On good batting pitches, getting the former Australian captain out cheaply seems next to impossible.
If the tracks are seaming around a bit, there is a possibility of getting Smith early if he can be exposed to the new ball. However, as the first day at Edgbaston showed, there's no guarantee that he could cave into the conditions, given his immense mental strength and resolve. Plus, the apparent weakness he has is something most batsmen do and in preparing spicy surfaces, England run the risk of being blasted out.
It's in such a scenario that Jack Leach becomes pivotal to England's strategies in this series. According to CricViz's stats engine, Smith has had underwhelming numbers against left-arm spin, the only category of bowlers against whom he hasn't done well in Tests so far. It's tough to tell whether he has struggled or not but he has been getting dismissed.
The 2016 tour of Sri Lanka is when this first surfaced as the wily Rangana Herath frustrated Smith into dismissals. The home series against South Africa later that year saw Keshav Maharaj causing troubles too, including the infamous LBW decision that was given when Smith was well down the pitch. Ravindra Jadeja caused problems during Australia's India tour in 2017 as well.
He's also got out to part-time left-arm spin and the pattern seems to suggest that there is a flaw, albeit a tiny one. Another set of CricViz numbers showed a shocking disparity in Smith's batting averages with regard to the in-spinning ball and the away-spinning one. Perhaps, the inward angle and then the turn away does sow the seeds of doubt in Smith's mind.
Leach has been England's best four-day bowler in the County circuit of late. He's also a very traditional bowler, relying on flight and dip, and also getting enough revs on the ball to impart spin. Unlike Moeen Ali who can be erratic at times, Leach also provides control and disciplined bowling is imperative if you want to get Smith out.
Moeen's exclusion does indicate at England fielding Jack Leach at Lord's unless they decide to stick to the part-time spin of Joe Denly as the only slow-bowling option. This could happen only if England are tempted to field an all-pace attack but that looks unlikely. Therefore, it would be surprising if Leach doesn't start in the second Test.
A major reason why the Somerset spinner hasn't got as many games as he should have, is due to England's flawed thinking of picking bowlers who can bat, instead of selecting the best bowlers. However, during his Man of the Match-winning night-watchman role against Ireland, Leach showed that he is capable of holding one end up.
More than his batting though, it's his bowling that England will need. They've thrown everything they possibly could at Smith, bar this tactic and it's something they need to attempt before it's too late in the series. If Smith has a gigantic series with the bat, Australia are likely to retain the urn. England need a Man Friday and that could be Leach.