With another Ashes century beckoning, Steve Smith will enter the mid-point of the Magellan Ashes Series tomorrow with both hefty expectation and huge responsibility beckoning as his team closes in on England’s sizeable total and bad weather looms for Perth.
On the back of Smith’s knock and a contrasting 50 from Usman Khawaja, Australia ended the second day 3-203 and an even 200 in arrears of an England first innings that had threatened to blow out but ultimately imploded amid another dramatic collapse.
After keeper Jonny Bairstow completed a deserved and invaluable century to add to Dawid Malan’s day one hundred, England’s last six wickets were lost inside an hour and their bowling stocks were thinned when their best seamer Craig Overton left the field with a sore rib.
While Overton returned to the fray shortly after, he did not bowl again and a full diagnosis of his injury remains as unclear as the weather forecast that predicts thunderstorms will hit Perth on Sunday afternoon and continue into Monday.
Smith seemed in seriously ominous form from the moment he marched to the wicket with Australia 2-55, indicating immediately that he meant business by crunching the third ball he received from Overton to the extra cover boundary.
As he had noted on Test eve, once a batter becomes set on the modern incarnation of the WACA pitch it can prove almost impossible to dislodge him.
It was that sense of infallibility that Smith radiated in his every (and copious) movement, as England tried to dry up his scoring with some funky field settings that the Australia captain took delight in permeating as if at will.
When convention wasn’t feasible, Smith reached into his bottomless bag of innovations.
The crouching pull shot in front of mid-wicket from a delivery to which most other players would have considered meeting with a forward defence, and the exuberant hook that cleared the outfielder on the fine leg rope by just enough were stand-outs in another outstanding knock.
The only anxious moment the skipper endured came on the dot of tea when Overton got a ball to rear from a length and it crashed painfully into Smith’s right hand and then the grille on his protective helmet before rolling perilously near his stumps.
It was a rare and fleeting misstep at a venue where Smith posted centuries in two of his previous three Test matches prior to this game, and where he will look to push on to an imposing score tomorrow.
Australia’s pursuit did not begin without anxiety, even though their rivals’ new-ball attack of James Anderson and Stuart Broad was able to generate nothing like the hurry-up that was a feature of the home team’s quicks for much of their 115 overs.
Anderson began below 130kph, and Broad’s inability to replicate the bounce that saw Australia keeper Tim Paine routinely catch the ball at head height was exemplified in his opening spell when one of the England seamer’s deliveries bounced twice en route to Bairstow.
After an hour of Australia’s innings, openers David Warner and Cameron Bancroft had made a textbook start in reaching 44 with nary a blemish, and as drinks were taken Warner called for a replacement bat seemingly dissatisfied with the blade he was wielding with atypical circumspection.
It wasn’t so much his scoring rate of 22 runs from 34 deliveries against the new ball that surprised, but rather his return of a solitary boundary in that time – a perfect punch down the ground from Anderson’s third over – given the preponderance of fours struck throughout England’s innings.
Two balls after drinks Warner was using his bat as a punching bag, jabbing his fist into the willow in frustration as Overton extracted hitherto unseen movement off the pitch to catch an edge from the angled blade that carried neatly through to Bairstow.
Overton, in his second Test having debuted in Adelaide earlier in the month, struck a second blow four overs later when he snuck a ball through Bancroft’s defence as the Western Australia opener was beginning to look decidedly at home.
The wicket coming through a canny review that showed the ball hitting Bancroft’s off bail, a use of the DRS system from which Australia might learn much.
The chance of a third breakthrough within a decisive spell then slipped agonisingly through Overton’s fingers, his instinctive lunge across the pitch having induced a leading edge from Khawaja before he had scored reaching the ball but unable to grasp it in his outstretched left hand.
Whether that effort was responsible for the injury that Overton succumbed to in the day’s final hour, or if it was a hangover from the blow to the ribs he suffered when batting on the final day in Adelaide might never be definitively known.
But it was inarguable that the enforced change brought about by the tall seamer’s departure from the field delivered England a vital break, with Chris Woakes taking over the bowling duties and in his second over taking out Khawaja.
The Australia left-hander had struggled to find fluency throughout his two-and-a-half-hour stay and should have been dismissed on 28 when an edge from Woakes flew past Joe Root at second slip with the England captain clearly unsighted as he failed to react until the ball had roared past his right shoulder.
However, Khawaja’s luck finally ran dry moments after he reached 50 when he was trapped lbw by Woakes with umpire Erasmus’s decision upheld in the face of Australia’s unsuccessful review.
It was a rare moment of celebration for England on a day that had begun so brightly.
Wary of Australia’s quicks starting day two with a ball barely 10 overs old, Dawid Malan and Bairstow were models of temperance and bided 21 minutes (27 deliveries) until they found their first run.
An over later, Bairstow posted the day’s inaugural boundary – an exquisite front-foot drive to the extra cover boundary off Josh Hazlewood.
But an even more significant victory had been won during that period, when the Australians felt they had Malan lbw in Mitchell Starc’s second over and gambled the last of their DRS quota on a failed bid to overturn umpire Erasmus’s ruling.
Thus the breeze seemed strong behind England when Bairstow reached his maiden Ashes century with a sweetly timed pull shot, and added a comic touch to his poignant celebration when he playfully headbutted his own batting helmet held in his left hand.
It was against the momentum of the day that Australia found their breakthrough.
Malan, who had been so diligent against the seamers in posting his first Test hundred, became frustrated at his inability to score off Nathan Lyon and aimed an ambitious drive away from his body and against the spin only to have the ball hold in and turn from the pitch surface.
The outside edge that it found looped towards vacant territory at backward point which substitute fielder Peter Handscomb – on the field but fleetingly for David Warner – filled seemingly from nowhere with a running dive that ended with the ball lodged in his fingers.
In that moment of athletic brilliance, the complexion of the day turned as the pitch that seemed tamed during England’s highest-ever fifth-wicket partnership in an Australian Ashes Test suddenly became unplayable and unfathomable to the second half of the tourists’ batting line-up.
The union between Malan and Bairstow had yielded 237 runs (surpassing the previous fifth-wicket benchmark set by Chris Broad and Bill Athey 31 years ago) across 414 deliveries.
Upon being broken, it triggered a now familiar England collapse of 6-35 from 50 balls, to complement the 4-24 and then 5-40 they surrendered in the first Test at Brisbane, as well as the 7-64 that decided the second match at Adelaide Oval.
It was Pat Cummins who cast the die, once again exposing Moeen Ali’s frailties against the short ball as he meekly fended a catch to Smith at slip from the second delivery he faced.
Hopes that the batting depth England had trumpeted as a strength pre-series might finally sound a note proved ill-founded three overs later when allrounder Woakes gave away his wicket with a languid flick off his hip that carried all the way to Cummins at deep fine leg.
Where the Australian – running in from the boundary and diving forward – took the second high-quality catch of the day, his teammates having squandered several easier opportunities a day earlier.
The rationale underpinning Bairstow’s elevation above Moeen in the batting order then became obvious when the century maker, with only England’s fast bowling trio to accompany him, abandoned the caution that had served him so well in search of quick runs.
However, his attempt to flick a delivery that Starc angled across him through mid-wicket only to have it graze the inside of his bat and flatten his middle stump ended that ploy and an innings that seemed set to threaten 500 was unexpectedly in danger of finishing sub-400.
It was only Stuart Broad’s cracking blow to a Josh Hazlewood delivery, which landed beyond the grass bank and almost through one of the bottom apertures in the WACA’s aged scoreboard, that carried England past that milestone.
And while a total of 403 was more than many had entertained when the visitors slipped to 4-131 yesterday afternoon, it was many shy of the tally that looked likely at 4-368 when Malan and Bairstow were cruising.
Australia XI: Bancroft, Warner, Khawaja, Smith (c), SMarsh, MMarsh, Paine (wk), Starc, Cummins, Hazlewood, Lyon #Ashes— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) December 14, 2017
England XI: Cook, Stoneman, Vince, Root (c), Malan, Bairstow (wk), Moeen, Woakes, Overton, Broad, Anderson #Ashes— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) December 14, 2017
2017-18 International Fixtures
Magellan Ashes Series
Australia Test squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Tim Paine (wk), Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird.
England Test squad: Joe Root (c), James Anderson (vc), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Jake Ball, Gary Ballance, Stuart Broad, Alastair Cook, Mason Crane, Tom Curran, Ben Foakes, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ben Stokes, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Chris Woakes.
First Test Australia won by 10 wickets. Scorecard
Second Test Australia won by 120 runs (Day-Night). Scorecard
Third Test WACA Ground, December 14-18. Tickets
Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Tickets
Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Tickets
Gillette ODI Series v England
First ODI MCG, January 14. Tickets
Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Tickets
Third ODI SCG, January 21. Tickets
Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Tickets
Fifth ODI Perth Stadium, January 28. Tickets
Prime Minister's XI
PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Tickets
Gillette T20 trans-Tasman Tri-Series
First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Tickets
Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Tickets
Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Tickets
Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 14
Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16
Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18
Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21