Australia’s captain Steven Smith was nervous enough about his chances of closing out a 2-0 Ashes series lead that he popped a sleeping pill in his Adelaide hotel room the night before Josh Hazlewood claimed the key breakthroughs to deliver an ultimately comfortable 120-run victory in the day-night Test.
Amidst what he admitted were a “pretty tough” two days from the moment he declined to enforce the follow-on and saw England roar back into the contest, Smith said he had questioned his own decisions plenty of times. Tension enveloped the Australians and the Barmy Army took particular enjoyment from the hosts’ loss of their two reviews in the space of three balls on the fourth evening, but it was Smith who revealed the full extent of his anxiety.
“I had to have a sleeping pill last night,” Smith said. “It has been a pretty tough 24 hours if I’m being honest, it’s all part of being captain of your country, you have to make difficult decisions and sometimes you’re going to make the wrong decision. It’s all part of the learning experience and hopefully I can learn something from this game. I’ll think back and reflect in the next day or so, what I could have done differently and better just areas I can continue to improve in my leadership and captaincy as well.
“I think we probably dominated the first two-and-a-half days of this Test match, England fought their way back into the game over the last couple of days and if I’m being honest I was a little bit nervous last night at the end of play. I thought they played really well, [Joe] Root and [Dawid] Malan in particular. We were only one or two wickets away, but with Root a dangerous player and if he got going he might’ve made things difficult for us. But fortunately we were able to pick them up and the rest is history.
“Coming here today I thought if we could get one or two early wickets, with the new ball only being 18 overs away at the start of play, then 180 was a lot of runs. It was very pleasing that Josh was able to come out and do what he did this morning, I thought his length was exceptional and to get the wicket of Joe Root really put us in a good position and I could breathe a little more easily then.”
Smith’s decision not to enforce the follow-on has been subject to plenty of criticism, akin to that faced by his mentor Mark Taylor when he also declined to send England in again at the Gabba in 1994. Then, as now, the hosts subsequently endured two difficult days before ultimately winning by a wide margin. Smith said he had thought primarily about preserving the bodies of his pace bowlers, while putting down the sharp swing generated by England’s bowlers to a combination of night conditions, a lack of breeze and a smart choice of ball on their part.
“We were 215 runs in front of the game. People say it swings a lot more at night, it probably does a little bit more and the conditions were favourable for the England bowlers, who exploit anything in the wicket when it’s like that,” Smith said. “It was very still that night as opposed to the first day when it was quite windy. I think when it’s still and not as windy it does a bit more, which was the same today, quite still and our new ball swung a lot too, as we saw from the first ball Starcy bowled.
“My rationale was we were a long way in front in the game, if we bat reasonably well … I thought we batted pretty poorly to be honest to get to 350 [in front] … but if we batted reasonably well then we should be getting up over 400. We didn’t do that but we were still a long way in front and confident.
“We know it’s a long summer and I think these bowlers we’ve got are very valuable, and just giving those guys a little bit of a rest always makes me confident they can come back and do the business they need to do. So give them a rest and keep the England bowlers bowling. They bowled 150 overs in the first innings and part of an Ashes series is that it’s long, and if you can tire out their bowlers early in the summer then it can make a big difference at the back end. But I will say over the last day or so I have had a few different thoughts, and I’ve read a lot of things, but in the end we’ve won the game so it’s all irrelevant.”
As for the loss of the DRS reviews, shortly after ICC regulations were changed to remove the top-up at the end of 80 overs, Smith said he needed to be smarter. “I guess your thinking sort of changes a little bit now with the umpire’s call – and whether you keep it, or if it’s missing you lose it,” he said. “It’s a tough one, and I certainly think my thought process around it has changed a little bit. Sometimes there’s more hope [than being confident a batsman is out] – and if it’s just touching the stumps we’re all right [and keep the review]. It’s an interesting one, but something I can continue to work on and try and get it as consistent as I can.”
Overall, Smith said he felt there was plenty of improvement left in Australia’s performance, not least more consistency with the bat after a poorly second innings. But he also pointed out that in Nathan Lyon, the world’s leading Test wicket-taker this year, and Pat Cummins he had two players at very near to the top of their games.
“I think we can improve. I think we let ourselves down a little bit in the second innings with the bat, albeit for the top order in the night things were tough and England bowled particularly well, we’ve got to give some credit there,” Smith said. “Yesterday afternoon the way we batted was a little bit disappointing, we gave a few wickets away there, didn’t grind things out for long enough and try and bat for longer and get a bigger total, so we probably missed a trick there.
“I think Nathan is bowling as well as I’ve seen him bowl, he’s hitting great lengths, he’s very confident, he’s bowling exceptionally well. A lot of credit’s got to go to Patty Cummins as well, I think he bowled brilliantly throughout this game. Even last night when things probably weren’t going our way, he was only going at one and bit an over still keeping the pressure on, beat the bat a few times, got the key wicket of Malan at the end of the day. He had a particularly good game with ball and bat as well, he contributed with Shaun [Marsh] in the first innings to help get us in a position to drive the game.
“It’s always tough coming back from 2-0 down, particularly when you’re away from home. You can be only one or two bad sessions away from the series really. That can play on people’s minds when you’re behind. So we have to be confident, do what we’re doing, do the basics really well. Getting first-innings runs is really crucial, as we saw in this game, and just backing up day in, day out and making sure we’re doing what we can to get this series to where we want it to be.”