Smith was elsewhere, as were David Warner, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon and even Justin Langer, while James Pattinson was only there in name, his numbered shirt ballooning around the chest of Matthew Wade. Even if the crowd were deprived of the chief personalities of this Australian team, they still got to see a diminutive “Pattinson 19” put down a sharp leg-side chance off Starc. Like the whole “Australia” on the field, the wicketkeeping was almost but not quite the real thing. Tim Paine, who didn’t bat, watched mildly from mid-off.
The conduct of this low-key game throws up certain questions. Touring teams have been demanding stronger competition, but here was a glorified centre-wicket practice between the second-bottom club in the lower county division and an international team playing with the demeanour of one fulfilling a contractual obligation. Will we be seeing these quaint encounters next time? What purpose do they really serve?
In the earliest Ashes itineraries, which ran for half a year and featured more than 30 games, the big stars had no option but to play and every game was for keeps. The players had a financial imperative – they funded the tours and shared directly in the gate takings – and, to avoid having to spread the profits too thinly, they only took squads of 12 or 13. After they lost financial control, they still played cricket match after cricket match, taking great pride in remaining undefeated for every tour game, an achievement managed only by Don Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles.
The Invincibles name has long been retired; the 2019 group will play just eight games on this tour, one of them against themselves in Southhampton. Smith is increasingly mentioned in the same breath as Bradman, but not in this regard: Bradman played nearly every game of those marathon tours, knowing how much rested on him in the quest to beat every county and bring income to county cricket. The mission was to promote and fund the sport. Now, the money has already been booked from television rights and the focus is entirely on the television games, so Smith and Warner are kept in cotton-wool and the bowlers are “managed” for the second Test at Lord’s.
If that is as it should be, what really is the point of this and the other tour game of 2019, at Derby between the third and fourth Test matches? There is an element of killing time and keeping idle hands busy. There is match practice for bowlers and batsmen, but in these ultra-professional days their workloads could be manipulated in other ways. There is an ambassadorial benefit, in bringing cricket to the county faithful, and in giving memorable experiences to some, such as Worcestershire’s 18-year-old debutant batsman Jack Haynes, who can tell his grandchildren that his first taste of big cricket was coming in at two wickets for no runs to face the mighty Starc and Hazlewood. There is cake, and more cake. There is a bit of stimulus for a local economy otherwise greased by this week’s Beer Festival (facing Brexit, Worcester’s response is beer).
Superficially this is cricket as it should be, local and medium-key and pretty, and in other ways it is a relic of something that used to carry real weight with real importance, but now serves all the purpose of the male nipple. It is just a stage in Australia’s preparation for a much bigger game 10 days away in London. They come in riding a high from Birmingham. They are hoping to maintain their edge. Should they lose it between here and Lord’s, questions will be asked anew about how much benefit there really is for today’s international cricketers in sleepy county games, and should those questions be answered in the negative, eventually this too, cake and all, will be a thing of the past.