Impressive: Matt Renshaw plays a shot during day one of the first Test against Pakistan. Photo: Tertius PickardThe first day of a new series is like a test tube, where all the ingredients are mixed to see how they react to one another and what they make, but hopefully to avoid an explosion. This was especially so at the Gabba, and especially because it was Pakistan.
There was no explosion. The day belonged to the stable elements. Prime among them was Steve Smith, who makes hundreds for Australia now as if stamping them out from a template. But he was ably bulwarked by half-centuries from second-gamers Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb. Smith was the known known, Renshaw and Handscomb the known unknowns. To date, it is a promising formula.
Momentarily in the last hour, the petri dish fizzed. This is day-night cricket’s witching time, when the ball is new and pink again, the lights flaring and the air thick, not to mention the edges. The last five runs of Smith’s 100 were harder-won than the other 95. But crucially, no wicket fell. One then might have triggered a clatter.
One other scientifically predictable factor was telling. At 53, Smith was dropped by wicketkeeper Sarfraz Ahmed, denying leggie Yasir Shah. No Pakistan day is complete without a vital dropped catch.
At day’s beginning, the questions were myriad. There was the pink ball, but in a new environment. There was, or would be, twilight, a more sudden phenomenon here than in Adelaide. There was Brisbane’s bleaching sun and stifling humidity, bound to have an effect on said ball. But what?
What with the pink inflexion and all those lefties leading the line on both teams, there was even a political hue, a counterpoint to the world’s general lurch to the right this year. OK, that’s a stretch, but Test cricket invites such musings.
There was even a swimming pool. Good question.
In different ways, there were two new teams. The Australians still are relative strangers to one another and to their audience, who are still to familiarise themselves with all their tics and idiosyncrasies, also their limitations and possibilities, their chemistry if you like.
Renshaw and Handscomb filled out a little more before our eyes and insinuated themselves a little further into our affections, the one a streamlined Matthew Hayden, the other whose technique does not so much tempt fate as dares it. Bit by bit, opposition bowlers will learn not to bowl at Renshaw’s pads, nor for that matter at Handscomb’s seemingly unguarded stumps.
The Pakistanis by and large are new to Australia, and in case always have an element of mystery about them. Hidden away under broad-brimmed hats, they really needed numbers. Initially, there was a upside to their anonymity: it acted to disguise the culprits in some all-too-familiar slipshod fielding. In one particularly calamitous misfield, Mohammed Amir let through four, wrenched his knee, collapsed, rolled as if he was Jurgen Klinsmann and had to be carted off, but did return.
Smith now is what he was least likely to be in his long-ago woolly beginnings, imperious. He is in the sort of form that makes his bat look twice as broad as everyone else’s, the bowlers half as fast, but the ball twice as rapid off the bat. A pair of pull shots from Wahab Riaz and a later brace of square drives would not look out of place in a Pirelli calendar. He is such an authority in Test match batting now that he provides footnotes, gesturing to show how an Amir away-swinger had beaten him, for instance.
Renshaw was his John the Baptist and Handscomb his St Peter, one prefiguring him, the other his aide-de-camp. Renshaw was so far off the radar at summer’s beginning that he bought tickets to his match. In Adelaide, he showed he at least had application and stoicism, old-time opener’s virtues. Here, put flesh on those bones, picking convincing runs to leg off fast bowlers and slow, in the great tradition of left-handers, for whom the front pad is not just protection, but also fulcrum.
Much of his manner is still coltish, as might be expected of a 20-year-old. Because he is tall, he sometimes looks tangled-footed. But he has spacial awareness at the wicket, which he might sometimes be beaten, but never because he is playing the wrong shot. Against Yasir, he revealed a readiness to drive with a Smith-like flourish. He is Gen Y, after all. Her does not strike as the entitled type, but the first half of day one belonged to him anyway.
Handscomb made a jittery start and a convincing end; it is fast becoming his mark. Once his eye is in, his strokeplay is rasping. Pakistan’s trio of left-armers made for an honest contest for all batsmen; every run was fully franked. One long string of dot balls bought Amir the wicket of Dave Warner, another tight sequence later gained for Wahab the scalp of Renshaw. Herewith, in these skilful stand-offs, the substance of the series, hopefully.
Yasir was as searching and skilful as his advance notices said, but to Australia’s bevy of left-handers insisted on bowling an unthreatening leg-stump line. Why? There’s another Pakistani riddle.
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