The crowd cheered and Steven Smith acknowledged them. But this was a landmark of a different sort. Smith had finally got off the mark.
After 38 balls, he tucked a ball off the hip against his nemesis Neil Wagner and scampered through for such a sharp single that Marnus Labuschagne had to get the dive out. The SCG roared, Smith smiled, raised a sheepish glove in mock celebration and got a pat on the back from Wagner.
“I actually had no idea he was on zero until the 38th ball. I actually thought we were rotating the strike quite well, which is quite funny,” Labuschagne said after the day’s play. “I came to the middle and though what was the carry on for, there’s a lot of noise, and he’s like ‘I’m on zero’ and I had no idea.”
Runs have not come easily for Smith this season, the fluency of the Ashes rarely being on view except in the T20Is against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, with the series against New Zealand (strike rate 34.13) and the Test season (strike rate 36.23) of 2019-20 comfortably the slowest of his career. Since 2000, no Australia batsman who has faced more than 500 balls in a home season has scored slower than Smith.
The tone was set by his two Sheffield Shield hundreds earlier in the summer which were valuable but grinding affairs on slow pitches, the second against Western Australia the slowest of his career. In the Tests against Pakistan he twice entered on the back of mountainous partnerships, playing around Yasir Shah in Brisbane and edging a swipe against Shaheen Afridi in Adelaide. There was little riding on those situations, but against New Zealand it has been a little different in the first innings of these matches.
The final scorelines are heavily in Australia’s favour, but in each of the three Tests Smith has walked in with New Zealand buoyed by removing David Warner who, like Smith, fell to Wagner for the fourth time. Another wicket and there would have been an opening, but each time Smith has stood firm when it mattered, often riding in the slip stream of Labuschagne who has had the summer of his life.
In Perth he batted 164 balls across more than three hours adding 132 with Labuschagne in the first innings. In Melbourne it was a more modest stand of 83, with Smith eventually being bounced out by Wagner for 85 by when New Zealand’s energy had also been zapped.
At the SCG, Smith again entered with Warner not converting a start into something more substantial – he has not quite built on the prolific form against Pakistan – when he flicked to leg gully and what transpired was the latest installment in the fascinating contest between Smith and Wagner.
The first ball (short, of course) took Smith in the stomach and Wagner sent down another 19 dots to him. At the other end Colin de Grandhomme and then legspinner Todd Astle did their part, Smith’s frustrations growing by the moment as he kept hitting the fielders when he tried to work Astle away. The crowd were getting into it, the absorbing nature of watching the best batsman in the world being kept scoreless. The moments in Test cricket where nothing, but everything, is happening in unison.
Smith had got to 4 off 48 balls when he danced down the pitch and lofted Will Somerville over wide mid-on and steadily the runs came a little more freely as he picked off errors in length from the spinners. From getting off the mark, he added 41 in another 62 deliveries to tea, the stand with Labuschagne again grinding New Zealand down in what was a re-run of the first two Tests.
And then things stalled again. He was kept on 49 for 17 balls – unsurprisingly with Wagner in the midst of another spell – before grabbing the single to bring up a half-century that brought another ovation from the Sydney crowd.
The second new ball did for him, edging an outswinger from de Grandhomme to slip, to give the depleted New Zealanders something to cling on to. It was the first time this series Smith hadn’t fallen to Wagner, his series tally against him 27 runs from 159 balls. “They’ve come prepared, come at the best batter in the world in a different way. He’s still countering it, he’s still putting runs on the board. It’s just testament to him as a player,” Labuschagne said.
You could make the case that Smith has never had to work hard for his runs, yet while it has been the summer of Labuschagne he has been there when it matters.