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Steve Smith and Jack Leach show there are many ways to over-step the mark

Steve Smith sports a pair of spectacles during the Ashes retention celebration in apparent mockery of Jack Leach
Steve Smith sports a pair of spectacles during the Ashes retention celebrations Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Madcappery is so ingrained in Test cricket that you hesitate to say any form of legal ‘bantz’ is going a bit far. In a world where people turn up dressed as Teletubbies, cardinals, crusaders and the 1966 England football team - all 11 of them - it might seem a bit rich to criticise Steve Smith for sporting a pair of spectacles during the Ashes retention celebration in reported mockery of Jack Leach.

Smith has been booed all over England and denounced as a cheat by spectators determined to unsettle him, Cameron Bancroft and David Warner: the three ball-tampering conspirators. To see Smith giving a bit back is no surprise. Contrition was never going to stop one so eager to throw off the cloak of shame and chase Don Bradman’s numbers. Yet there was still a tremor of uneasiness when Australia’s justly jubilant Ashes team allegedly chose Leach as the butt of their comedy while insisting later that the glasses were in honour of Chris Rogers, the former Test opener.

Who knew that Chris Rogers skits were a thing? Perhaps it was Australia shouting “no ball” and “come back Smithy” at the party that told us Leach was really the one being teased. Leach of course over-stepped his mark when finding the edge of Smith’s bat when England’s tormentor was still on 118 and Australia were 273-6. With the reprieve, that became 497-8, leaving Leach in the doghouse. Since 2010, finger spinners have bowled Test no-balls every 1,236  deliveries. Small errors can haunt players all their lives.

Australia have enough pastoral duties of their own without worrying about Leach’s emotional health. They are, remember, on a journey to rediscover winning within acceptable bounds. Hence the barefoot walk round Edgbaston (the shoes stayed on after that) and the “elite mateship” drive. This enforced values-revaluation may well have brought about change in the win-by-any-means outlook that landed them in hot water and alienated many in their own country. But it was never going to alter the dynamic of Ashes cricket: one of the most intensely fought and enjoyable rivalries in world sport.

Plainly Tim Paine’s Australia are tired of being shamed and have no wish to play the Uriah Heap part for English audiences who give them heaps. Only Warner can say whether relentless hostility has contributed to his disastrous form in this series, where he averages less than Leach. Smith was thought to be the more sensitive one but has already rediscovered his Machiavellian side.

Declaring that playing England was “like Christmas every day” was clearly aimed at Joe Root and his sometimes passive captaincy. Claiming he “didn’t hear” Matthew Wade harmlessly sledging Jofra Archer when he (Smith) was standing a few yards away was also questionable. Memories are still sharp of Smith giggling his way through the Brisbane press conference in which Bancroft hammed-up the Jonny Bairstow nightclub ‘headbutt’ incident. There has also been a creeping sense that Smith is taking the mickey out of England’s bowlers with his elaborate leaves and by throwing himself to the ground so much at Old Trafford.

Nobody needs him to be an angel and he will never return to Aussie statesman duties. They never fitted him well. His true vocation is as a run-making machine who has taken batting to another level and transformed the art of fidgeting and pirouetting at the crease. He deserves our respect and to not be booed any longer, especially when he walks back out after being felled at 93mph, as he was at Lord’s. If he picked on Leach, though, with the spectacles routine, it would be a poor defence to say it was revenge for the England spinner time-wasting with his goggle-wiping routines.

Jack Leach's third Test heroics earned him cult status among England fans Credit: ACTION IMAGES

Probably everyone in cricket would look at Leach and see the player who stands on the alpha-male margins. Every pavilion has one. It’s not that special allowances should be made; more that mocking a Ben Stokes or Stuart Broad would be rather more courageous. I should acknowledge here that England fans started the ball rolling by turning up en masse bespectacled in baldie headcaps. They made a comedy cult of Leach long before his costly no-ball alerted us to the dangers of creating fall-guys under the gaze of the world.

The ‘Taunton Tendulkar,’ as some are calling him, will now understand how cricket expects some people to be Ashes warriors but also figures of fun. Playing both those roles must be confusing. For some weird social reason nobody can quite fathom, prime-time cricket lampoons itself half to death while also putting heart and soul on the line.

Retaining the Ashes has been seized on by Australia as a chance to bury the guilt of ball-tampering. Glenn McGrath wrote in his BBC column: “They can now put what happened in South Africa with the ball-tampering scandal well and truly behind them.” And the English chants of “same old Aussies, always cheating” were rewritten by the winning team as “same old Painey, always winning.” Fair enough.

Maybe we should accept Australia’s claim that Rogers was the one being impersonated by Smith. What we do know is that there are many ways to over-step the mark, as Leach, with his non-dismissal of Smith, will still be reflecting many years from now.

England set-up looks increasingly antiquated

Gareth Southgate picks the England football squad and team and Eddie Jones does the same in rugby. You see them both in cub grounds on dark winter afternoons, studying some bright young full-back or watching a trusted old pro return from injury. But who picks the England cricket side and who is there with the Wisden readership at four-day county games?

Plenty of scouts and and data crunchers, apparently. And possibly Ed Smith, the national selector, whose reign has become more troubled in this Ashes series. Only cricket, to my knowledge, has three overlapping spheres of power when it comes to the starting XI and who should bat where. For example the word was that Smith thought Jason Roy might make it as Test opener while Trevor Bayliss (coach) and Joe Root (captain) were inclined to see him as a No 4, protected from the new ball.

To imagine a line-up where coach and captain are both unhappy with selection is to hurtle back to the 1950s in football, when the team was picked by committee. Surely one of these layers needs removing. Even if the England coach is unable to spend weeks on end at Derby and Bristol it ought to be possible to identify the best players through scouting and video analysis. Then it falls to that coach to work with them and assess them in camps and warm-up games. Having different coaches for the various formats would help.

The captain is the one who calls the shots in matches so he or she must retain a major say. But to have a selector, coach and captain all competing over the same decisions is a recipe for trouble. “We’ve always done it like this” is the poorest defence of all.