Smith masterclass puts pressure back on England

Four years ago this week, Steven Smith spontaneously changed his technique while batting against England at the WACA, adding a preliminary movement in an innings that became his second Test century. Back at the same ground, against the same opposition, but now as Australia’s captain and the best batsman in the world, Smith looked impenetrable as he sauntered towards what could become his 21st Test hundred and dragged his team back into the contest on day two in Perth.
England had started the morning in a powerful position at 4 for 305, and an England Ashes record fifth-wicket partnership of 237 between Dawid Malan and Jonny Bairstow built the perfect platform for a hefty total. Along the way, Bairstow raised his first Test century in 18 months, but when their stand was broken the England lower order collapsed quickly on a WACA pitch offering some of the old pace and bounce, and their last six wickets fell for 35.
England were all out for 403 – still an imposing score, but not one that posed an insurmountable object for the Australians. And despite some fine bowling from Craig Overton, who picked off both of Australia’s openers after they made starts, Smith ensured that his side finished the day in a satisfactory position at 3 for 203, trailing by 200 with seven wickets in hand. By the close, Smith was on 92 and Shaun Marsh had 7, having come to the crease after Usman Khawaja was lbw to Chris Woakes for 50.
Khawaja had scratched his way to his half-century from 122 deliveries, but his next ball was angled in from Woakes and struck Khawaja on the back leg. Given out on field, Khawaja reviewed the decision: there was more rocking and rolling in the third umpire’s room than at an Elvis concert as Aleem Dar tried to ascertain whether a Snicko spike was ball on bat, but in the end Khawaja was sent on his way. Marsh might have followed him in the closing overs, only for a chance off Moeen Ali, rebounding from the boot of short leg, to somehow evade both Mark Stoneman and Bairstow.
Khawaja’s fifty had come about half as quickly as Smith’s, which was fitting for Smith looked about twice as good. There were some cracks in the pitch that provided the occasional spot of uneven bounce, but if it wasn’t a road, Smith enjoyed driving on it all the same, punishing England’s fast bowlers when they overpitched. He also latched on to short deliveries when he could, and dealt prolifically in boundaries on his way to a 58-ball half-century.
England were not helped by the absence of Overton for a period during the final session, as he appeared to struggle with a problem in his rib/chest region. He had clearly been England’s most dangerous bowler during the early stages of Australia’s innings, drawing an edge behind from David Warner on 22 from a ball that angled in and straightened, and then trapping Cameron Bancroft lbw for 25 with a delivery angled in from wide of the crease.
Overton might have added Khawaja to his wicket tally if he could have held on to a very difficult diving return chance early in the batsman’s innings, and Khawaja had another life on 28 when his edge off Woakes was missed by Joe Root at slip. Khawaja went on to compile a 124-run stand with Smith, but it was barely half as big as the partnership between Malan and Bairstow that set up England’s innings.