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Steve Smith shines as Australia and Pakistan head towards soggy draw

The Guardian logo The Guardian 29-12-2016 Russell Jackson at the MCG
Australian captain Steve Smith salutes what remained of the MCG crowd after reaching his century on day four of the Boxing Day Test against Pakistan in Melbourne. © AAP Australian captain Steve Smith salutes what remained of the MCG crowd after reaching his century on day four of the Boxing Day Test against Pakistan in Melbourne.

Not for the first time in a Test career now well set in a period of sustained brilliance, Australian captain Steve Smith’s timing was impeccable on day four of the Melbourne Test. No sooner had the Australian captain driven through cover to bring up his 17th Test century than umpires Ravi and Gould stopped play for a monsoonal downpour, which struck at 2.50pm at the MCG and did not clear.

For the rest of the day’s play the sun fried but never entirely frazzled the Pakistan attack, among whom only Mohammad Amir went without some kind of reward in between being clobbered to all parts by Smith, Peter Handscomb and, ever so briefly, their much-maligned team-mate Nic Maddinson.

The latter pair provided an interesting study in contrasts. Both came into this side two games ago as greenhorns on equal footing, but now look like members of entirely different species. Maddinson’s 22 was by a factor of four his highest Test score so far but again ended with an error of judgement and technique when he charged leg-spinner Yasir Shah and missed, making the type of delivery his colleagues had hammered look like Shane Warne’s Gatting ball.

Handscomb, meanwhile, is playing with the freedom and confidence that comes from a series of impressive early scores. When he departed for a muscular 54 by middling a square drive straight to the man at point off the otherwise innocuous Sohail, you could have heard a pin drop around the Melbourne cricket ground.

Where Maddinson’s premature demise on a dream batting wicket confirmed our pre-existing bias, Handscomb’s just seemed aberrant, which is also the most charitable way of describing Usman Khawaja’s failure to add more than two runs to his overnight tally of 95 before a windy waft at Wahab Riaz sent a thick edge behind to Sarfraz. The Australian No3 hung his head like a man convicted and will wait at least another week for his sixth Test century.

On the contrary, Smith was never going to squander a chance to bolster his numbers in what amounted to high level centre wicket practice. He contributed only 35 of a 92-run stand with Handscomb and never showed an overriding desire to dominate the bowling, knowing full well how his own attack had tired in this unusual and sustained four-day spell of humidity in Melbourne.

Pakistan’s first innings hero Azhar Ali left the field after a sickening blow to the head while fielding at short leg. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

As well as a mastery of his own game, Smith is gradually adding to his repertoire a keen understanding of what is happening to his partner at the other end. Having allowed Handscomb far more of the strike in their union, the Australian captain took the load off his replacement Maddinson, squirrelling away 37 of their combined 59. Smith also picked his targets in the opposition attack, deferentially blunting Yasir and Amir before attacking their relievers Sohail and Wahab; every one of his nine boundaries came from the latter pair.

Wahab was the other player to post a century today, though not the kind you write home about. His 100 front-foot no balls in the 16 Tests since his recall to this side bely the 31-year-old’s almost 400 games of experience in professional ranks. It’s a good thing he pursued cricket and not javelin.

Yasir was again an unconventional delight, abandoning the packed leg-side field of day three and throwing caution to the wind. His unflappability in the face of harsh treatment has served him well here; 2-150 from 34 overs would cause soul-searching in lesser competitors. One in every five deliveries he bowled to David Warner on day three landed on or over the boundary rope, but today he tied up Smith, Maddinson and Matthew Wade, the latter of whom has 19 runs from four innings since his return to bolster Australia’s batting.

The deciding Test in Sydney is looming large and a number of players in each side are likely to move on from this this one with question marks next to their names rather than impressive numbers. Departing with both due to the most unfortunate moment of the day is Pakistan’s batting star and unlucky short leg Azhar Ali, who was struck flush on the helmet by a Matthew Wade pull. He left the field by his own steam but will be tested for concussion.

The now inevitable draw in Melbourne dovetails with the first Test played between these nations, also at the MCG, back in 1964. Then Australia granted their visitors only a single Test and a four-day one at that, suffering a dose of poetic justice by reaching only 88-2 in pursuit of 166 in the dying stages. As was the case then, the frustrations of this encounter are evenly shared.

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