Australia wait on misfiring engine-room as Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne seek return to normal service

Steven Smith snapped his head back in reaction to what Jonny Bairstow had said running round from behind the stumps when he flicked carelessly to midwicket. Moments earlier, Marnus Labuschagne slumped to his knees and was barely able to drag himself from the middle of Headingley after slog-sweeping to deep midwicket.
It was a few minutes that turned the third Test England’s way, although there were a couple more twists to come. From Smith and Labuschagne’s point of view, their frustrations were obvious having, in Moeen Ali‘s words, “gifted” him their wickets. For both, so far this Ashes has been a series where they have performed below their exceedingly high expectations.
In their 12 innings, they have only managed one score over 50 – Smith’s superb first-innings century at Lord’s which went a long way towards setting up Australia’s victory. It’s worth remembering, though, that Smith had also scored a hundred in the World Test Championship final against India. The Edgbaston Test was a rare occasion of both players failing collectively with 35 runs in the match, although Australia still managed to win.
Smith entered the series with an Ashes average of 59.68 (65.08 in England), including the gargantuan 774-run series in 2019, and Labuschange 45.86, so their respective returns of 31.66 and 24.00 heading into Old Trafford is a significant success story for England’s attack. Labuschagne’s current run of eight innings without a half-century is the longest of his Test career.
“I think both of those guys may have moved their hotel pillows into the nets over the last couple of days, the amount of time they’ve been spending in there,” Pat Cummins said. “They’re both class players at the top of their game who don’t miss out too often. They’re both looking really good. Steve has scored two hundreds this tour…I’m expecting big things from him as always.”

By and large, England’s success against Labuschagne has been by challenging the outside edge – encouraging him to play balls he would often leave – nothwithstanding the sweep against Moeen – whereas Smith’s dismissals have been a bit more varied.

Stuart Broad‘s outswinger started things off at Edgbaston when he removed Labuschagne for a first-ball duck. Broad did him again second time around and added Smith for good measure during a high-impact spell late on the fourth day. Earlier in the game, Smith had been lbw to a bail-trimmer from Ben Stokes on the ground where he scored twin hundreds four years earlier.

Onto Lord’s and it looked as though the pair could combine for one of their massive partnerships. But having reached a stand of 102, Ollie Robinson found Labuschagne’s outside edge. In the second innings, Labuschagne could barely believe it when he slapped a wide long hop from Jimmy Anderson to point. Smith, meanwhile, was a victim of the short-ball barrage when he found deep square leg.

At Headingley, Labuschagne was given a working-over by Mark Wood in the first innings – facing 18 balls without scoring a run off him – before edging Chris Woakes to slip. Smith, meanwhile, in his 100th Test, couldn’t build on a life having been spilled by Bairstow when he soon got an inside-edge against Broad. Then came the duo’s double aberration against Moeen. Again, significantly, Wood had been operating at the other end.

“When you have someone bowling like Woody, as fast as he does, and the partnerships you have as a bowling group, Woody might not be the one getting wickets but they fall at the other end,” Stokes said. “You can look at 10-over spells and the person at the other end could get two for whatever and Woody might not get any, but the wicket definitely sometimes comes from the pressure applied at the other end.”

Smith admitted his personal landmark outing had played a part. “Honestly I needed a break,” he told the Unplayable podcast. “It was quite a draining week mentally with emotions flying around at what I’d achieved. I usually don’t like to think about that kind of thing, but it was quite a big milestone individually.

“I certainly didn’t feel as switched on as I would have liked out in the middle. It’s been good to refresh and I feel a lot more focused mentally this week. Outside of that, it was just a weird week, I’m not really sure why.”

When you factor in David Warner, who has mixed handy contributions with a return to his 2019 struggles, it means three senior figures in Australia’s top six have combined to produce just two fifty-plus scores in 18 innings.

“That’s been the issue for Australia so far,” Mark Taylor wrote in a column for the Sydney Morning Herald and Age. “They just haven’t made enough runs, with England doing a good job of keeping them down.”

Labuschagne, although he has found consistent starts, has looked uncharacteristically ill-at-ease throughout the series and, as is his want, has spent a lot of time tinkering in the nets. England are pleased with their success so far, but wary of what could still come.

“We have obviously managed to do something right to not allow Marnus to go on and make those big scores that he’s been able to do in his career so far, but you don’t read too much into stuff like that against world-class players,” Stokes said. “There’s a reason why he averages 55 in Test cricket, it’s because he’s a quality player. But we’ve just been really good with our plans to him so hopefully we can do the same and he doesn’t get a big one this week.

Smith could quickly flick back into his stride. His centuries at The Oval and Lord’s were superb innings. In 2019, when he was returning from concussion, he made 211 and 82 at Old Trafford to set up Australia’s Ashes-retaining victory.

“Great players are always due, and they are due some runs,” Moeen said. “Smith obviously played brilliantly at Lord’s. He’s outstanding and very hard to play against, so when you see the back of him, in particular early, you always feel like you’ve done a great job as a team. But as the opposition, you know it’s around the corner for players like that. You are hoping it doesn’t happen, but it’s been one of the reasons why I think the series has been so tight, because we’ve managed to keep them a little but quiet.”

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo

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