Following Australia's victory in the first Test at Edgbaston, Richard Mann lavishes praise on Steve Smith and visiting captain Tim Paine while pondering England's selection dilemmas.
Technique for show, runs for dough
Neither Steve Smith nor Rory Burns would make it into an ECB coaching manual but the former is well on his way to becoming one of the greatest Test batsmen of all time while the latter's hundred in England's first innings went a long way to cementing his Test future and should really have set the hosts up for a victory push.
On his first Test match since returning from his ball-tampering ban, Smith stroked two majestic hundreds, the first keeping Australia in the match having slumped to 122-8 on the opening day before a second-innings 142 took the game away from England and drove Australia towards victory.
There were certainly more classical players on show in Birmingham but none more successful than Smith and for all his technique continues to draw criticism, the 30-year-old has now passed three figures on 23 occasions in Test cricket while his average stands out a staggering 61.37.
Those numbers now put him above the likes of Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar and Kumar Sangakkara and as Ricky Ponting said last week, "He'll be remembered as one of the all-time greats. He's going to leave a lot of us old blokes behind."
Despite an awkward set-up, which begins with Smith adjusting his pads, thigh pad and box before moving into his stance, Smith manages to manoeuvre his bat from a starting position aiming towards point into a beautifully presented straight bat on impact with the ball.
An exaggerated trigger movement across his stumps is one that threatens to leave Smith vulnerable to deliveries honing in on the stumps but a wonderfully still head as the bowler delivers the ball means he is invariably in the perfect position, with his incredible hand-eye coordination there to get him out of trouble when needed.
Anyone who has seen Smith play tennis can vouch for just how blessed he is in terms of hand-eye coordination but it is his mental strength that sets him apart from many of his peers and puts him on a par with Virat Kohli, the India star who enjoyed similar success on these shores 12 months ago.
It wasn't so long ago that Smith was in tears in front of the media, having been forced to step down as Australian captain following the ball-tampering scandal and facing a ban from cricket that threatened to end his international career.
Nevertheless, in his first Test match in well over a year and on a recent diet of white-ball cricket following Australia's World Cup campaign, Smith drew on all of his reserves to navigate his side through a first innings Edgbaston storm that came from a highly-skilled England seam attack.
What must also be considered is the complex range of emotions Smith must have felt returning to the Australian side this summer, a side he used to captain but one in which he must now learn to be a foot solider again under the leadership of Tim Paine.
Like everything else, Smith was seemingly able to put it to the back of his mind and brush it off, doing what he has always done: make big runs in the toughest conditions to help Australia win cricket matches.
Mind over matter.
The same comment also applies to Burns, England's much-criticised opening batsman who, like Smith, sets up with his bat pointing towards point and is on the move as the bowler is in his delivery stride.
Nevertheless, Burns found a way to leave behind his pair of low scores against Ireland to register his first Test match century, 133 runs against a relentless Australian bowling attack never allowing him to breathe easy.
It really was a battle of will, one which Burns eventually won late on the second day as he brought up three figures with a scrambled run to mid-on.
It wasn't always pretty and he certainly enjoyed some luck but like Smith, he found a way to be successful and his heroic efforts really should have been capitalised on by those following him in England's batting order.
Forget technique, Burns stayed true to his game and found a way to prosper on the biggest stage of all, finally offering hope to England that a long-term replacement for Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook at the top of the order has been found.
Coaches around the world might be struggling to work out what to make of it all but Smith, and Burns to a lesser extent, are a lesson to us all.
A strong will and an understanding and belief in your own game can help you scale far greater heights than any coaching manual or 'perfect technique' and the challenge for the bowlers for the rest of the summer is to work out how just to get them out.
Paine shows Australia the way
Australia's emphatic victory owed much to Steve Smith's pair of brilliant hundreds and the herculean efforts of Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon with the ball.
However, the role captain Tim Paine played in victory at Edgbaston and Australia's general upturn in fortunes since taking charge of the side cannot be underestimated.
Having earned a shock recall for the successful Ashes series Down Under in 2017/2018, Paine's superb glovework and organised batting impressed the selectors so much that when Smith was forced to step down as captain following the Newlands scandal, the Tasmanian was tasked with leading the side until the conclusion of that ill-fated tour of South Africa.
So accomplished was Paine upon taking up the role, his determination to see Australia's players improve as cricketers and people as they fought to win back the respect of the Australian public and the cricketing world as a whole, the Australian hierarchy had no hesitation in making it permanent.
Despite losing to a strong Indian side in the winter, victory over Sri Lanka before pushing Pakistan hard in the Dubai hinted at a brighter future for Australia and their performance in Birmingham was both skilful and brave.
The bravery began at the toss when Paine opted to bat first on a pitch tinged with green and beneath gloomy skies.
Paine could have easily take the easy option and fielded first, shielding his much-maligned batting unit from England's potent seam attack, but he was brave and bold, asking his batsmen to take control of the game, and for all they needed Smith and Peter Siddle to haul them to 284, it was good enough.
Even when Australia conceded a first-innings deficit of 90, the fact England had to bat last on a dry and wearing Edgbaston surface meant they were always chasing the game just a little and that was down to Paine's decision at the toss.
Paine enjoyed a good Test on the field, excellent catches to dismiss Burns in the first innings and Ben Stokes in the seconds innings when stood up to Nathan Lyon highlighting the importance of fielding a specialist keeper in this form of the game - his glovework was far superior to that of Jonny Bairstow.
Having been dismissed cheaply on the first day, Paine's fluent 34 in the second innings confirmed his batting remains in good order and he can look back on Edgbaston as a job well done - and look forward to Lord's with both confidence and excitement.
On the eve of the first Ashes Test, it was Australia who sprung the selection surprises with Peter Siddle and James Pattinson joining Pat Cummins in a three-man pace attack at the expense of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood.
Siddle and Pattinson both justified their selections and ought to be retained for Lord's while Cummins and Lyon confirmed just what world-class operators they are with brilliant displays, that pair sharing 10 English wickets on the final day.
Australia's one slight concern might be the workload of their pace bowlers - Cummins bowled 33 overs in the first innings - and the temptation to draft in all-rounder Mitchell Marsh as a fifth-bowling option might be too strong to ignore, if not at Lord's, then maybe in Leeds for the third Test.
With Matthew Wade and Travis Head both making runs this week, that might mean opener Cameron Bancroft is the one looking over his shoulder with number three Usman Khawaja having been successful when asked to move up to the top of the order in the past.
For England, their pre-series plans are now in tatters with James Anderson's calf injury meaning he is almost certain to miss out at Lord's and probably Leeds, too.
Jofra Archer is waiting in the wings but Anderson's record at Lord's is particularly strong and Australia's top order will no doubt be pleased to see his name missing from England's team sheet a week on Wednesday.
Staying with the bowling, Moeen's Ali second-innings figures of 29-1-130-2 put him under a little bit of pressure, especially when you consider how his opposite number, Nathan Lyon, performed in such spin-friendly conditions.
Ali's overall record against Australia and his current form with the bat are further causes for concern but the Worcestershire man came into this series in fine fettle having enjoyed a wonderful run of form with the ball, taking more wickets than any other bowler in Test cricket in the past year, and England will surely keep faith with such a proven performer.
Another proven performer who finds himself under the spotlight Jonny Bairstow, fresh from a wonderful World Cup, but only averaging 22.91 in Test cricket since the start of the 2018 summer.
Bairstow's keeping was shoddy at times in Birmingham and while captain Joe Root will be keen to keep faith with his Yorkshire colleague, Ben Foakes was brilliant with the gloves and bat in the winter and remains on the selectors' radar.
Joe Denly is another man who will be hoping he gets another crack of the whip at Lord's, though after only four Tests I'd be inclined to give him more rope.
After a nervous start in the West Indies, Denly is beginning to look more and more like a Test match batsman every time I watch him and he was a shade unlucky to be undone by a sharp inswinger the first innings here after Australia had persuaded the umpires to the change the ball.
Denly made another promising start in the second innings before succumbing to Lyon and some vicious turn and I'd bet that he can convert one of these promising starts sooner rather than later.
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