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Cummins' blueprint seamingly difficult even for Smith


On Saturday (September 7) at Old Trafford, the seaming ball was crowned as the most difficult to face in cricket. And there can be no debate about it. The anointment came from Steve Smith, after all, the best Test batsman of his generation and perhaps a few preceding his as well. And when he says "the seaming ball is the hardest thing to play in the game" you just listen to him. You believe him. You accept his claim. You spread the word. 

The fourth day of the fourth Test was a seaming day. It was also a new-ball day, where we saw three of them in operation. It was one of those rare days in Test cricket where the ball in play, as a result, stayed hard for a majority of all three sessions. It's a phenomenon that you generally can only see on Day 4 of a Test, considering it's when teams declare their innings to set up run-chases for the opposition. Like we did here in Manchester. Australia needed 27 overs with the second new-ball to clean up England in their first innings, England bowled 42.5 overs with their new-ball as the visitors set up their declaration before Pat Cummins rocked the hosts with a double-blow in the first of the 7 overs that they had to face in their second innings. And the ball seamed and moved off the Old Trafford pitch right through the day. Understandably it made batting rather cumbersome for everyone who walked out to bat whose name wasn't Steve Smith, even if it did result in him recording his lowest score of the series, a "lowly" 82. 

Smith though would later reveal that even his extraordinary batting faculties had been tested by Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer, who in tandem produced the best spell of bowling that England have managed against Australia's mainstay. He even admitted to having felt "vulnerable" for his first 20-30 balls when the charged-up English pace duo kept hitting the perfect length and producing "sideways movement" in both directions. Smith for once had to dig in deeper than any time earlier in this series to withstand the testing inquisition, despite getting beaten on both edges of the bat, getting caught in untoward positions and even being forced to mistime his drives. 

Smith had come out to bat on the back of the Aussie openers falling prey to Broad for the umpteenth time. And both David Warner and Marcus Harris were caught on the crease by deliveries that pitched and jagged back in sharply. He then saw Marnus Labuschagne get trapped by a seaming delivery too, with Archer getting one to nip back in at rapid pace. Yet Smith survived at times narrowly. 

Once Smith had outlasted Broad and Archer though, it was party time. He hardly looked bothered against Craig Overton and dominated Jack Leach from the moment the left-arm spinner was brought on. From that point on, England were at Smith's mercy and it looked like he was playing on a different wicket, which seems pretty much the case every time he walks out to bat in Test cricket. It was akin to seeing an ingenious cueist putting on a tricks-shot exhibition, both in terms of the strokes that he played and the ones that he attempted to play-especially the one-handed diving swat to a wide delivery from Overton. 

While adjusting to movement off the pitch is never easy, the fact that most fast bowlers in English conditions prefer using the scrambled seam while releasing the ball - think more Anderson than Shami - combating it involves a greater level of difficulty as Smith would explain later in the day.
"I think it's off the pitch, that's the key to try and hit that. I don't know what it does when they scramble it, but I guess it just hits the ball in a different spot then can move sideways. You don't have time to react so you have to play the line and if it goes in, you have a chance of hitting the stumps and getting LBW, and if it goes away you have a chance of nicking it," he would say. And if it's difficult for Smith, it must be doubly difficult for every other batsman you'd assume. 

Ask poor Joe Root, who ended up being dismissed by a delivery from Pat Cummins that deserved to win a beauty pageant. It wasn't just aesthetically pleasing in terms of both delivery and execution, but also produced the effect that fast bowlers fantasize about-hitting the top of the right-hander's off-stump to the cue. There'll be a lot of prose and poetry written on the ball in days and weeks to come. But let's look at it from Root's glum perspective. What could the England captain have done differently to counter it? Probably nothing. Like Smith explained, the only option for Root was to stick his front foot out and play the line of the ball, released with a scrambled seam, with the hope that it doesn't react dramatically upon pitching. That's what he did, but only to see the ball zip past his outside-edge and ram into the point of the off-stump where the bail makes contact with it. It was the kind of delivery that the GIF was invented for. 

And it was delivered not surprisingly by a bowler who we could safely anoint as the Steve Smith of Test bowling. It's a fair comparison too purely in terms of his ability to literally remove the pitch and conditions out of the equation when it comes to displaying his abundant and unique skills. Like Smith with bat in hand, Cummins does things with a ball that others can't imagine doing on the same pitch. He's done so consistently too for the last couple of years, and only seems to get better with each outing. 

But here in Manchester, there will be a lot on offer from the pitch on Day 5. And with the Ashes within their grasp, Cummins looks poised to deliver it to Australia. Smith sounded confident that he would too, not surprisingly so after the Root dismissal. 

"I think that ball to Root is a blueprint of what we need to do tomorrow. If they do that again and hit the top of the stumps, that same length as the Root ball, hopefully we can see a lot of bowled, LBWs and caught behind the wickets," he said. 

On the basis of what we saw on the fourth day, and Smith's acknowledgment of the difficulty in playing the "hardest ball to face in cricket", it looks likely that his bowlers will fulfill his wish.

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