Three years ago, on this very ground, England met Steven Smith for the first time. Then, he was a bits and pieces cricketer; he could bat a bit and he bowled a few leggies. On day one of the third Test at the WACA, England met somebody completely different.
This Ashes series has been played at a frenetic pace and this was no different. In sapping Perth heat, Australia’s run rate was up – they fell below four an over only once the second new ball arrived – but the over rate was down, with just 87 overs managed despite the extra half hour being used. No bother, this was another absorbing day’s cricket, the outcome of which both sides would have probably accepted when Michael Clarke won the toss and chose to bat, for the third successive match.
It is hard to know who had the best of the morning session. When lunch came, Australia stood 3-107 from just 24 overs. They had smashed boundaries, yet given away three soft wickets. England had their opponents three down but had bowled too short and been sent to every corner of the ground. Jimmy Anderson produced a moment of inspiration to run out a hesitant Chris Rogers before Shane Watson proved his doubters right by swinging hard at a ball best left alone after flying out of the blocks. David Warner and Clarke looked settled, as they have done all summer, before Graeme Swann, who many tipped to be dropped, finally out-foxed Clarke.
By lunch, those who questioned Swann looked thoroughly silly; not only had he taken a superb catch to dismiss Watson, but his solitary over had removed Australia’s captain.
Through all this, Australia had scored at a throughly un-Test-match-like 4.5 an over. The madness continued after the break when, with temperatures touching 42 degrees, two more Australians gave their wickets away. Amid a series of loose shots, Warner played perhaps the loosest of them all, gifting Michael Carberry a catch at point off Swann, before George Bailey hit an ugly hook to Kevin Pietersen in the deep. Enter Steven Smith and Brad Haddin.
In contrast to his first Test ton, Smith’s second came just when his side needed it. With the Australians teetering on the edge at 5-143, the pair safely added 77 before tea, and another 47 after. Smith dug in and played to his strengths. He chased Swann and he chased the short ball, but besides that, he simply waited for the bad one, and duly put it away.
Haddin also deserves credit. Quietly, despite Mitchell Johnson’s heroics, the wicketkeeper is playing himself into contention for man of the series. He eventually fell for 55 to an unattractive leg-side swipe after enjoying more lives than the average cat. He rode his luck and, like Smith, played to his strengths. Haddin, about as fashionable as crocs with socks, won’t win man of the series but he should take as much credit as anyone for Australia’s renaissance.
The fall of Haddin and the new ball did not stop Australia, though, as England’s long afternoon continued. With the tourists wilting in the sun, Johnson and Smith took them to task, adding 59 before the day was out, with Johnson displaying some innovative baseball-style strokeplay to Broad.
At the close, England’s bowling coach, David Saker, was disappointed. “We had a chance, but we weren’t able to take it. We probably bowled a little bit too short. It’s drilled into this group not to bowl short. We probably got a little bit excited but the game is still alive. We will come back tomorrow, fight to get the four wickets and then hopefully bat really well.”
Saker was also quick to blame the coaching staff, saying, “we might have made a mistake in this game”, with regards to the omission of Steven Finn, Boyd Rankin and Chris Tremlett, all upwards of 6 foot 7.
Neither team should be unhappy but England will look back to day one at both Brisbane and Adelaide. Three times they have had the hosts on the ropes. Three times they have let them recover. Twice it has been Australia that has thrown the knockout blow.
A good day for: After an indifferent start to the series and with an average of just 17 at the WACA, Smith came into the Test with questions about his place in the side. The 24-year-old played a blinder, though. After the top order surrendered their wickets with some frenzied strokeplay, Smith strode to the crease calmness personified. He got off the mark with a huge maximum off Swann and from there showed what a beauty this WACA track is. Excellent on the front foot, especially through cover, and against the short ball, creaming it through midwicket, Smith thoroughly deserved his unbeaten 103.
A bad day for: Billy Bowden. The umpires have come in for a fair bit of stick of late, and with good reason. But Billy didn’t have any tricky decisions to make today – he just couldn’t count! First, he forgot about a Stuart Broad wide, thus ending an over after just five deliveries, before making Ben Stokes bowl a seven-ball over in the stifling heat!
Champagne Moment: With the match less than two overs old and Australia flying, Anderson provided the moment of inspiration that England found hard to come by in Brisbane and Adelaide. Rogers pushed Broad to mid-on, Anderson skipped to his left before unleashing a dart that cannoned into the bullseye with Rogers out of his ground. Umpire Erasmus called for assistance but the batsman knew his fate and trudged off. England were off to a flyer.
Shot of the Day: Steven Smith spent the day teaching England how to play the pull shot, but the one that took the pugnacious right-hander to his half-century off Stokes was the pick of the bunch. Stokes and Bresnan bowled at the middle of the pitch and Smith continued to meet them with the middle of the bat, his high back lift sending his hands from high to low, and dispatching the ball down through midwicket with unerring accuracy. It was only fitting that he brought up his ton in the same manner.
Ball of the Day: Had Australia gone into lunch two down, especially with the form men Warner and Clarke at the crease, they would have been in absolute control. Instead, Cook introduced Swann, who continued his happy knack of picking up a wicket in his first over. The twirler tossed his second ball up a little and Clarke fell for the bait, skipping forward and slapping it to mid-wicket, where his opposite number, Cook, took a fine catch.
Stat of the day: Brad Haddin became just the third wicketkeeper to score more than 50 the in first four innings of a series. He joins an elite club comprising West Indies legend Clyde Walcott and England coach Andy Flower. Walcott and Flower both achieved the feat on tours of India.
What Saturday holds: Heat, heat and more heat. We’re not just talking about the meteorological conditions, either. England had solid first days in Brisbane and Adelaide, and look how that turned out. The real Test comes on day two on a pitch expected to quicken up, when Mad Mitch has the ball in his hand. Can England’s batsmen overcome their demons?