Stand-in skipper Smith steps up to make amends

By, Ahmedabad
Mar 08, 2023 10:29 PM IST

It is no coincidence that Nathan Lyon came into his own in the third Test as Steve Smith stepped in to captain filling in for Pat Cummins.

Backed by Smith’s proactive leadership, Lyon was all over the India batters to pick up an 11-wicket match haul and bowl Australia to victory. Smith made the difference with his bowling changes as he kept rotating his men. Cummins was criticised for allowing the game to drift away in the first two Tests when the Indian partnerships were brewing while Smith never took the foot off the gas. He was defensive when needed, and knew when to attack.

Australian captain Steve Smith on Day 1 of the 3rd cricket Test match between India and Australia(PTI)
Australian captain Steve Smith on Day 1 of the 3rd cricket Test match between India and Australia(PTI)

The best example was the field placing for Pujara in the second innings in Indore. It was as much the captain’s wicket as the bowler's (Lyon, in this case). Like he has done many times, Pujara again appeared in the mood to take the game away from Australia. Lyon was running through the India line-up from one end but the India No. 3 was playing him skillfully to craft a fine half-century.

With the pitch assisting spinners aplenty, a target of 170 would have been difficult for Australia to chase down. Well set, Pujara also looked set to take his team to that target by milking runs on the leg side off Lyon. That's when Smith changed tactics. He took the gamble of employing seven men on the leg side to stop the singles and doubles. It worked. Pujara was shackled, and in a bid to break the pressure made the mistake of playing a forceful flick when Lyon pitched on the leg stump. Smith pulled off a miraculous one-handed catch at leg-slip but the fact is Pujara had played the ball uppishly to offer the chance. With Pujara out at the total of 155, Australia took little time in packing off India for 163.

For Smith, in a way, the chance to stand in as captain is a godsend opportunity to make amends. The last time Australia toured India in 2016-17, he had started the series as the cynosure of all eyes. With a match-wining century in the first Test in Pune, he had set the tone for the series. But things changed quite quickly from thereon.

In the second Test in Bengaluru, he suffered a “brain fade” moment when he appeared to be seeking the dressing room's advice on taking a DRS referral, prompting the then India captain Virat Kohli to charge the Aussies with cheating. Smith was then caught on camera allegedly calling M Vijay a "f****** cheat" for claiming a catch during the final Test at slip. In his batting, though, he was unstoppable piling on 499 runs at an average of 71 across the four Tests. It still wasn’t enough for him or his team to win the series.

With victories in the first two Tests, India have again retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy as the holders. Starting with the 2016-17 series, it is the fourth straight time that India have held the prestigious trophy. For this batch of Aussie cricketers, that is bound to hurt all their life. So rich is their cricketing history that gaining recognition in their fraternity is not easy. They have been the most dominating teams in most eras, except for the brief period in the first half of the 1980s. And so for Australia to lose to the same opponent four times in a row will never be taken kindly.

The fourth Test, therefore, presents Smith and his men an opportunity to make amends and share the honours 2-2. To take two Tests out of India’s mighty hands in India is considered an improbable feat. Victory in the third Test was only Australia's second in India since 2004 and Smith believes another one to level the series would be an ideal finish.

"For any touring team to come here and win two Test matches will be a huge achievement," said Smith.

For that, Smith has to be at his best as a batter too. So far, with a highest score of 37, he is averaging 24.25 after five innings. He seemed happy with the track on offer at Motera. It remains to be seen if the confidence gained in captaincy will rub into his batting.

He had declared after the third Test about how the challenge of playing and captaining in India brings the best out of him. "India is a part of the world I love captaining... it's probably my favourite place in the world to captain," he said.

"Every ball is an event and therefore can dictate what happens after, which is something that I really love and you've got to be ahead of the game."

On match eve, he reiterated his love for playing in India. The hosts better watch out—the Australia legend certainly looks in the mood to sign off the series with a bang.

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