Smith epic takes Australia ahead before Hazlewood makes mark

England 302 and 2 for 33 lead Australia 328 (Smith 141*, Marsh 51) by seven runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

In the course of what is rapidly developing into a supernatural Test career, Steven Smith has surpassed himself time and time again. But in the course of 57 Tests and 21 centuries, it is hard to believe that he has compiled a more brilliant and vital innings than his unbeaten 141 in the first Test of the 2017-18 Ashes.

On Smith’s dogged and indomitable watch, Australia seized hold of a rapidly freefalling first innings, and dot by dot, nudge by nudge, turned what had at one stage looked like being a 100-run deficit into a vital lead of 26.

And then, as if ignited by their skipper’s deeds, Australia’s bowlers tore into England’s top order in a gory final hour. Josh Hazlewood ripped out two prize wickets, including Alastair Cook for his second failure of the match, before Mitchell Starc clanged England’s captain, Joe Root, a savage blow on the helmet. Root and Mark Stoneman limped to the close on 2 for 33, a lead of 7, but in the course of 16 high-octane overs, the legend of the Gabbatoir had burst back to prominence in no uncertain terms.

It was a sensational day’s cricket, glacially slow at times – particularly during a morning session in which Smith added just 17 runs to his overnight 64 – but never less than utterly absorbing, thanks to a match situation in which two wholly committed teams have surged and slipped like a pair of boat-race crews hurtling under Hammersmith Bridge.

But, by the close of day three, it was abundantly clear which team had pulled ahead by a length. Hard though England toiled in the field, not least in the build-up to the second new ball, when Jake Ball and Chris Woakes – backed up by funky leg-side fields – set themselves to slow the run-rate to a crawl, their efforts were as nothing compared to the pace and fury that Australia’s seamers were able to generate on a surface that is appreciably quicker now than it had been on a sluggish first day.

From the outset of England’s second innings, it was clear that Starc and Hazlewood were generating a touch more heat than their English counterparts. However, Cook was still taken completely by surprise in Hazlewood’s second over, when he fizzed down a pinpoint bouncer that the former skipper could only flap off his eyebrows to fine leg, where Starc had only moments earlier been changing his boots and now dived forward to scoop up a stadium-igniting catch.

In came James Vince, England’s hero of the first innings, who moments earlier had been pictured shadow-batting in the dressing room. He got off the mark with a neat clip off his pads, but could go no further than that, as Hazlewood zeroed in on his outside edge, for Smith to snaffle a flying edge at second slip.

And before Root had had a chance to settle, it was Starc’s turn to leave his mark on the innings – or more specifically the peak of Root’s helmet, as he smashed a stunning bouncer flush into the corner of the visor and sent his ear-guard flying in the process. Australia’s fielders showed instant concern for the England captain, and the team doctor rushed out to give him a standing count, but with Mark Stoneman showing his mettle once again, England managed to reach the close with their hopes more intact than the fury of the session might have suggested.

And yet, England will have regrouped at the close of play wondering how they were not firmly in control of this contest. The simple answer is that Smith refused to let them take control, although there were also some crucial questions flying around about the fitness of James Anderson, whose withdrawal from the attack after just three overs of the second new ball undermined England’s hopes of a quick kill, after he and Stuart Broad had struck twice in as many overs to reduce Australia to 209 for 7.

To focus on England’s tactics in that particular instance, however, would do a disservice to the immense levels of skill and determination shown by Smith in particular, but Pat Cummins too – whose innings of 42 from 120 balls helped add 66 vital runs for the eighth wicket, as Australia put crease occupation ahead of forward momentum in a bid to endure by whatever means necessary.

Smith had resumed his innings knowing full well how vital his continued presence would be, given that England’s own innings had featured three half-centuries but nothing more substantial than Vince’s 83. And, having converted 20 of his previous 41 fifties into three figures, he was in the right frame of mind to go on again and give Australia the best possible chance of extending their proud unbeaten run at the Gabba.

In total, he needed a hefty 261 balls to bring up his hundred, which he finally achieved with a crunching drive through the covers off Broad, one of the few occasions when he allowed his natural ability to over-ride his defensive mindset. His moments of alarm could be counted on one hand – on 69, he was caught unawares by a perfectly directed throat-ball from Ball, but the spliced opportunity plopped short of the slips. But beyond that, Smith was happy to duck the short balls and get firmly into line against the straight ones, and bide his time in a manner that few players of the modern era are willing to do.

Shaun Marsh rather proved that point in the manner of his dismissal. He had been Smith’s partner when Australia resumed on 4 for 165, and though he marked his return to the Test team with a hard-fought fifty, he was eventually done in by a canny piece of bowling from Broad. Lured onto the front foot by an apparent wide half-volley, Marsh failed to clock that Broad had rolled his fingers down the seam, and Anderson collected a dolly of a lofted drive, as the ball skidded off the splice to mid-off.

Tim Paine, who had made his Australia debut alongside Smith against Pakistan at Lord’s in 2010, came out to join Smith for his first Test innings for seven years. And though he looked solid for a while, he had no answer to the ball of the day from Anderson. Armed with the new ball, as well as the knowledge that he needed to make it count, Anderson produced a snorter that angled into the right-hander, nipped away, and kissed the edge for Bairstow to collect a fine one-handed catch behind the stumps.

Starc started his innings with eye-popping intent, slamming his second ball, from Broad, clean over long-off for six – to induce a wry grin and a shrug from the bowler. Two balls later, however, Broad had his revenge, hauling his length back just an inch or two to collect another attempted drive in his follow through. At 7 for 209, Australia were on the ropes.

But then came Anderson’s apparent injury – a clutch of his side midway through his third over with the new ball, and a guarded chat with his captain. Though he initially remained on the field, he was delivered a tablet by England’s 12th man before lunch, and departed into the dressing room for further treatment in the afternoon. And without his incisive attack-leading, England’s remaining bowlers went flat at precisely the moment that a moment of magic was required. That it was left to Root himself to end the innings, courtesy of Cook’s leg-side catch off Lyon, was an indictment of a fielding performance that finally ran out of steam. Australia’s bowlers, by contrast, haven’t looked fresher all match.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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