Perth: Few expected Australia to reach Perth with a chance to claim the Ashes in the third Test. Fewer still would have predicted that the author of a pivotal innings in that match would be Steve Smith, a gifted and fidgety young man raised on spin in New South Wales and until recently out of his depth on pitches as fast as the WACA Ground.
But disbelief has required suspension quite often since Ashes hostilities resumed in Brisbane, and so it was that Smith secured his place in Australia’s middle order for the foreseeable future with a hundred composed enough to put more experienced team-mates to shame. Australia’s close score already looks substantial against a touring side that has reached 200 only once in four innings in the series.
For much of a scorching day England had the chance to capitalise on Australian hubris, as six batsmen perished in a manner they would wish to forget. It took Smith’s newfound judgement around off stump and relish on the pull and the drive to lift the hosts to a substantial tally, and by stumps he looked good for plenty more in the company of the juggernaut Mitchell Johnson after stabilising the innings alongside Brad Haddin.
Their composure contrasted with the exits of Chris Rogers, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke, David Warner and George Bailey, who all had reason to hang their heads in the Australian viewing area. James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann all bowled strong spells for the visitors, but there was evidence of energy being sapped as the day wound down.
England had recalled Tim Bresnan for his first Test since he played at Durham in the previous Ashes. Australia, so unsettled for much of that series, were able to name the same team for the third consecutive Test after Ryan Harris proved his fitness. Clarke won a toss his England counterpart Alastair Cook would have dearly loved to call correctly for, sending Rogers and Warner in to face England’s seamers on a pitch that showed the faintest sheen and promised sharp bounce, pace but no undue sideways movement.
Rogers initially looked comfortable, leaving Anderson well then flicking Broad through the leg side when he pitched too straight. But with 11 runs to his name already, Rogers chose to risk a hasty single to the final ball of the second over, challenging Anderson to throw down the bowler’s end stumps. He did just that, leaving Rogers to dust himself off after a futile dive and trudge back to the dressing room even before the third umpire delivered his verdict.
Warner was sure of himself and his technique, punching boundaries on either side of the wicket, while Watson grooved his cover drive against a series of overpitched deliveries from Broad. Cook swung his tallest paceman around to the other end, and immediately had the reward of Watson’s wicket to a presumptuous drive at a ball nowhere near the right length for the stroke. Swann’s high catch at second slip was a sharp one.
Clarke and Warner prospered for a time, scoring freely with shots both orthodox and less so. Warner was the beneficiary of Bresnan dropping a half-chance from a shovel back down the wicket, and celebrated by depositing the same bowler into the spectators at wide long-on.
Lunch beckoned, but first Cook called upon Swann. After Warner trotted a single, Clarke advanced to drive Swann’s second ball, but was done by flight and dip, an off break taking a thick inside edge to Cook, diving forward to claim the chance at short, straight midwicket. The players had not long returned when Warner also departed, undone by bounce as he tried to cut Swann.
Australia’s sense of haste was now being maintained well past a point where some careful regrouping was required, and George Bailey did not seem able to rein himself in. Offered a short, fast ball by Broad, he pulled at it airily, losing one hand from the bat shortly before he lost his wicket to the catch at deep square leg. 5 for 143 was wasteful.
The only man who seemed entirely sure of what the day required was Smith, who was content to score at a more sedate 50 runs per 100 balls until very well set. At the other end Haddin enjoyed rich helpings of good fortune, not for the first time in the series, edging or gloving several balls near slips and stumps. Together the two New South Welshmen rebuilt.
Smith did not risk the kind of edge given up by Watson, leaving length balls outside his eye line then playing freely through the leg side when the bowlers angled towards the stumps. Twice Swann was thumped for six over long-on, while Ben Stokes was coaxed into a short ball contest that resulted in a volley of smart pull shots in front of square.
Haddin showed increasing certainty, swinging Swann over midwicket then driving Bresnan delectably through cover, and the middle order pair went to tea with a partnership already worth 77 under the unrelenting Perth sun. Cook returned with a plan to bore the hosts out, alternating 7-2 fields with short bowling to a leg side deployment.
It eventually worked for Haddin, reaping a low catch to midwicket from another pull shot, but was unable to sway Smith, who did not rush at England’s dry bowling and waited for his chances to score. The 90s posed few problems, a stand-to-attention drive down the ground followed by another pull shot, and quickly Smith was leaping into the air in celebration.
His first century, at The Oval, had been a major personal achievement in a series previously decided. This one, in conditions that tested his technique and temperament fully, is among the most significant played by an Australian batsman in recent times. It has gone a long way towards sealing the fate of the Ashes.
Australia 6 for 326 (Smith 103*, Warner 60, Swann 2-71) v England