Cricket

English cricket disgraces itself as Smith’s sins fade

Australia have one hand on the Ashes, and two feet upon the moral high ground, after the second test match in England.

Steve Smith’s Ashes.

That’s what the 2019 England versus Australia test cricket series will become known as.

The batting feats of the former Australian captain upon his return to the crease, following a year out to ponder the wisdom of cheating and lying in the pursuit of victory, will be enshrined in the game’s annals.

It’s also what, thankfully, the Smith family won’t be scattering any time soon, after the Aussie battler shook off a fearful blow to the head from Jofra Archer, surviving with nothing more serious than a spot of delayed concussion.

Not to belittle concussion, but it’s not as serious as death – the shockingly unfortunate fate suffered by another Aussie cricketer, Phillip Hughes, when he was struck a similar blow in a state match in 2014.

The way Smith collapsed on the pitch after turning his head and collecting Archer’s thunderbolt at the base of the skull, behind the ear, was terrifying to behold.

It underscored that cricket, at its most competitive, is among the most gladiatorial of sports. And that a good chunk of the English toffs in the crowd at Lords – who booed Smith upon his return to the crease – haven’t evolved much since Roman times.

As former England captain Michael Atherton pointed out, it’s understandable that Smith is viewed as a pantomime villain by some English cricket fans. But Smith’s felling wasn’t any kind of theatre – it was very much real life, and all too close, perhaps, to death.

Very few people involved in the incident have come out looking like great ambassadors for humanity. The English fielders closest to the action, who rushed to Smith’s aid and showed genuine concern for a player who had utterly tormented them in three consecutive innings, emerged with due credit.

The same couldn’t be said for Archer, who appeared to display minimal concern beyond a cursory check that Smith was still breathing, and was soon after captured by cameras wearing what could easily have been construed as a smirk.

It’s tempting to judge the young fast bowler harshly for that. However it has been pointed out that Archer was in conversation with a team-mate at the time, and it’s impossible to know what exactly prompted his lips to curl upwards. There’s certainly no proof it was because he was feeling any kind of joy.

Besides, Archer was simply doing his job – being a big, angry fast bowler with the capability to knock a batsman’s head off and the intent to follow through on that threat.

In fairness to Archer, he’s never been shy about his desire to intimidate, having tweeted in 2013 that his elevation to professional cricket meant: "All batsmen buy 2 helmets cause went [sic] we meet they will be in use”.

As appalling as the thought is, it’s hard to castigate Archer even if he was indeed feeling just a little chuffed about having roughed up the best test batsman on the planet on his own test debut.

The Ashes might have a reputation as a noble sporting contest between two proud nations, however the reality is more of a grim shit-fight featuring more snark than a Lewis Carroll novel.

It is the contest, of course, that famously featured Australia’s vice captain Vic Richardson asking his players: "Which of you bastards called this bastard a bastard?" when Douglas Jardine, England’s captain during the 1932 Bodyline Series, complained about being sledged.

The debut of test cricket’s concussion replacement rule was also less than totally triumphant, with the decision to stand down Smith in the second innings ever-so-slightly undermined by the decision to allow him to return to the crease in the first.

The explanation of concussion symptoms appearing the day after he was struck is plausible; the absence of those symptoms shortly after he was struck, not so much.

There’s no doubting the new rule allowing a concussed player to be replaced in the batting line-up is a worthy notion. Although it would be interesting to know exactly how Marnus Labuschagne felt about it, when he was told he had landed the job of standing in for a player who’d been incapacitated by a bowler who had just produced the quickest-ever spell of bowling by an English test player.

Fair chance he checked his kit bag to make sure he’d packed two helmets. And two pairs of undies.

Labuschagne did superbly to repel England for 100 balls while scoring a vital 59, but that innings will be a footnote in history.

Because, in a series in which he has risen from them - and, mercifully, avoided being transformed into them - these are Steve Smith’s Ashes.

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