Ashes hostilities begin as British media targets Steve Smith, Tim Paine

British media has gone to town over the footage showing Steve Smith shadow-batting during the partnership between Cheteshwar Pujara and Rishabh Pant, which at one point on the final day of the Sydney Test raised slim hopes of an unlikely Indian victory.

Smith was seen pretending to bat left-handed and run his spikes over the crease where Pant had marked his guard. The stump-camera later showed the Indian wicketkeeper-batsman asking for a fresh guard from the umpire.

After the ball-tampering scandal of Cape Town 2018 and the “brain-fade” row over a possible DRS call at Bangalore 2017, Smith is no stranger to controversy. And with the Ashes scheduled for later this year, the English are sparing no effort to target the biggest reason Australia retained the urn in 2019. It seems hostilities in Test cricket’s oldest rivalry have started already.

Many in England – ranging from former skippers, coaches, current players and those in media – have argued that despite all the talk of culture reviews, playing the game in the right manner as well as giving and earning respect, the ‘win-at-all-cost’ mentality in Australian cricket came to the surface in Sydney when push came to shove.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan, one of the commentators for the Australia-India series, described the incident as “very, very poor”.

England all-rounder Chris Woakes, currently in Sri Lanka for a two-Test series, found time to dive into events taking place thousands of miles away, though the first Test of their series starts on Thursday. “There’s only one person who knows whether he was doing it to affect the opposition batsman or not and that’s Steve himself,” he was quoted as saying by BBC.

“Was it a deliberate attempt to alter the surface or just one of Smith’s idiosyncrasies?” BBC Sports’s Jack Skelton asked. Sky Sports commentator and former England batsman and head coach David Lloyd is said to have described Smith’s actions as childish. Clearly, the English like nothing better than to have a go at the Old Enemy, and the more high-profile the better.

Matthew Syed’s column in The Times had the headline – A new culture? This is same old snide Australia. He wrote: “I hope nobody is surprised by the latest slippage of the Australian mask. As India battled valiantly to save the third Test in Sydney, Tim Paine, the Australia captain, swore towards an umpire, abused one opponent, Hanuma Vihari — who, despite a hamstring injury, soaked up 161 balls to help India to a draw — and called another, Ravichandran Ashwin, a “dickhead”.

Steve Smith, for his part, scuffed up the crease, hoping — it appeared — to push Rishabh Pant, who had developed an impressive rhythm, out of his stride. In case you’d forgotten, this was supposed to be Australia 2.0. A new version of the old team.”

Syed doubts the culture in Australian cricket ever changed, despite the 145-page report resulting from the review commissioned by Cricket Australia after Newlands 2018, which he terms a “cover-up”.

“The only thing the players learnt from that scandal is that the only crime is to get caught. If you can get away with it, you’re laughing all the way to the SCG… There is a distinct problem in the Australia team — dare I say it, a cultural problem. A win-at-all-costs mentality, a willingness to abuse opponents, a tendency even to mock their own players — such as the peerless Adam Gilchrist — when they seek to set a more enlightened example,” Syed writes.

Paine defends Smith

Skipper Tim Paine jumped to his predecessor’s defence, claiming there was nothing untoward or sinister about Smith’s actions on Monday.

“I have spoken to Steve about this. And I know he’s really disappointed with the way it’s come across,” Paine said. “If you’ve watched Steve Smith play Test cricket, that’s something he does every single game, five or six times a day. He’s always standing in the batting crease, shadow-batting. We know he’s got those many Steve Smith quirks and one of them is he’s always marking centre.”

Paine argued that the reason for shadow-batting left-handed was to figure out where off-spinner Nathan Lyon should aim for while bowling to left-hander Pant. He said that if Smith had any intention to indulge in sharp practice, the Indian batsmen in the middle would have complained.

“He was certainly not changing guard and I’d imagine if he was, then the Indian players would have kicked up a bit of a stink at the time. When he’s in the field, he likes to walk up to where he bats and visualises how he’s going to play. Yesterday you could see him up there, playing a couple of shots as a left-hander – as if [working out] where he wanted Lyno to pitch the ball. He wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, trying to change guard or do anything like that.”

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