In part two of our series looking at classic Ashes showdowns in England, Steve Smith takes his game to a whole new level, but victory would prove a false dawn for the new-look Aussies.
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Three days before the second Test of the 2015 Ashes series, Australias coach, Darren Lehmann, dined in the Long Room at Lords. The occasion was a sponsors function organised by Hardys, the Australian wine brand that was pouring millions of marketing dollars into English cricket and was also the official wine supplier of Cricket Australia.
There were others from the Australian team and staff there that night, including fast bowler Ryan Harris, whose Ashes campaign and Test career had slammed to an abrupt halt only a week before when a knee injury in a tour game against Essex prompted his retirement.
From the England camp there was Stuart Broad and assistant coach Paul Farbrace, among others, while the ex-players roll call was headlined by Michael Vaughan and Glenn McGrath.
As the red flowed around him in the Pavilions inner sanctum and in the adjoining Long Room Bar, Lehmann was in an ebullient mood.
There was, however, plenty occupying his mind and those of the others in the Australian team hierarchy, selection chief Rod Marsh and captain Michael Clarke, following a disappointing defeat in Cardiff two days before.
“There are certainly questions being asked about their team,” Broad told reporters before the event proper began.
Chief among them, at 1-0 down in the series, was what to do with Shane Watson. The all-rounder had been out in familiar fashion, thumped on the front pad twice in south Wales and with an increasing belief that Englands seamers had his number, the temptation to promote Mitchell Marsh – armed with hundreds in both warm-up matches against county opposition in Canterbury and Chelmsford – was strong.
Behind the scenes there was also consternation about another senior figure in the side but for different reasons, with Brad Haddins daughter Mia ill in a London hospital.
The concern of teammates was obvious. While the squad trained on the day before the Lord's Test in the Nursery Ground practice nets adjacent to the main arena, Haddin was meeting Lehmann in the dressing room in the Pavilion some 200 metres away. Soon after, Clarke emerged, leaned over a railing and confirmed to half a dozen journalists with deadline anxiety that the veteran wicketkeeper was withdrawing for family reasons and being replaced by Peter Nevill.
“For us it was just making sure he was all right,” Lehmann recalls. “For him … family is more important than a bloody game of cricket, to be honest.”
Watson, meanwhile, was dropped for Marsh.
“That was a tough call with Shane Watson because he was a great player for Australia,” Lehmann says now. “We always rated him really highly. But obviously over in England, he struggled in 13, apart from his 170 at The Oval, and then in 15 he came in on the back of not great form in the Australian summer and then he struggled in the West Indies.
“We would have loved to keep picking him but we just thought the time was right for change. Its never easy dropping world-class players but the make-up of the side was the one that was best, we thought, to win that Test match.”
Watson and Haddin had figured in 125 Tests between them in the decade before but as history would have it neither would play again.
Tide turning at happy hunting ground?
The excitement and anticipation hits you once you hit the top of the escalators at St Johns Wood tube station, pass the newsstand and ticket touts outside and join the masses in the time-honoured march down Wellington Road towards the home of cricket.
This is a different kind of crowd to the fancy-dress crew of Edgbaston. Youre unlikely to find a bloke decked out in a fox onesie or as the Queen and if you do they wont be getting through the gates, such outfits not in keeping with the general decorum of the place.
Instead, Elizabeth II herself might be there, or maybe Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, who is a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club, founded in 1787 and which owns Lords.
Once inside, there is the old and the new at either end of the ground – the historic Pavilion at one and the spaceship-like media centre at the other. In between is the hallowed playing surface, with its 2.4-metre slope down towards the Tavern Stand.
For the players the experience is like no other. “You walk out of the changeroom, down the stairs, through the Long Room and [the members] are standing there applauding you as you walk out,” says Nevill, who made his debut in the 2015 Ashes Test there, his baggy green cap presented to him by Steve Waugh before play on the first morning.
“You walk out through the doors of the Long Room and you see the big stadium from a different perspective. The applause as you walk on … its such an iconic ground. And the tilt of the ground becomes so much more apparent when you walk out onto it.”
It is a venue that has been good to Australia over the years, with only two defeats there since 1934. The tide was beginning to turn when Clarkes team arrived four years ago, though, with both of those losses occurring in the six years before.
Pressure mounts on fidgeting former spinner
Lords already held a special place in Steve Smiths heart. Five years before he had made his Test debut, as a leg-spinner and lower-order batsman, against Pakistan.
At 26, he touched down in England via Australias two-Test tour of the West Indies as one of the leading batsmen in the world on the back of hundreds in each of the four Tests against India in the home summer and then another against the West Indies at Sabina Park.
Perhaps he was flying a bit under the radar … But now he was the premier batsman of the team and had the expectation that came along with that.
He was irritated to have missed the opportunity to seal a first Test double ton in Jamaica a month before the Ashes began when a Jerome Taylor inswinger brought him undone on 199.
There would be few better chances to make amends than on a wicket made for batting at Lords, where he was greeted still with curiosity about peculiarities like his shuffle and his fidgeting despite the imposing record he was quickly building.
“Coming back to England he was sort of the premier batsman and expected to dominate,” says Nevill. “There was a lot of scrutiny about how his technique was going to stand up in English conditions.
“When he made his first hundred in the UK [in 2013], perhaps he was flying a bit under the radar, having just cracked the team. But now he was the premier batsman of the team and had the expectation that came along with that. You cant discount the amount of pressure he was under.”
Smith didnt have to wait too long for his shot after Clarke won the toss and David Warner blew a prime opportunity to go big himself.
Settling in for the long haul with Chris Rogers, the Australian No.3 presented one chance when he was put down by Ian Bell low at second slip when he was an even 50. Rogers, too had a scare in the first over of the match when he swung rashly at a swinging delivery from James Anderson and edged it through the slips between Bell and Joe Root.
The hosts were made to pay for their profligacy, Smith dazzling with glorious cover drives as he passed Rogers score in the 90s. Both brought up centuries within moments of each other, Smith pulling Anderson effortlessly through midwicket for four to raise his. They would finish the day 1-337 amid a record-breaking stand, Smith remarking provocatively after play that he was “a little surprised [the England head coach] Trevor Bayliss allowed Alastair Cook to have a deep point for as long as he did”.