The sandpaper scandal leaves anindelible stain. Of course it does. However, by increments, Smith is already about his business adding layers of sweeter-smelling detail associated entirely with his unique talents as a batsman. Starting with this, a sensational ton in any circumstances.
In his first Test match following his year in the sin bin, on a pitch that saw his team-mates in and out of the hutch at a brisk rate, it might rank among the finest knocks of his or any career. Smith not only stitched together Australia’s recovery he utterly ransacked the English psyche. Stuart Broad took five wickets to bring up a century of Ashes scalps. It was barely a footnote on a mind-bending day of Test cricket.
When Australia’s No10, Peter Siddle, walked to the crease at 3pm, the loss of Jimmy Anderson after just four overs did not seem to matter. England’s openers were practising their forward defensives in preparation for for a 30-odd over afternoon.
From the hopelessness of 122-8 Smith guided Australia to a ridiculous 284, more than doubling the total, with England captain Joe Root , pictured,reduced, at one point, to lining the boundary with all but the bowler and keeper.
Smith is to the naked eye the anti-Bradman, a batsman whose formidable aggregation of tics and twitches make a bowler’s eyes bulge with opportunity. So what? The result is invariably the same, head over the ball at impact and Bradman-esque misery for the fielding side.
When Broad finally got him for 144, Smith raced back to the pavilion to allow Australia’s bowlers two overs at England at the end of the day. Perhaps he had forgotten he is no longer the skipper. What does it mean to be captain with Smith is in this Australian team playing as only he can?
An honourable mention for Siddle, too. Turns out in the time he has been away from the Test scene playing county cricket with Essex, the 34-year-old has morphed from a bowler into Smith-lite, a batting machine without the tics, adding 44 largely untroubled runs.
Siddle’s fall with the score at 210 still felt like England’s day, except Australia would add a further 74 runs. The contribution of No 11 Nathan Lyon? Just the 12. That’s how unplayable Smith had become. England thought they had him for 33 when he shouldered arms to one that Broad brought back. Umpire Aleem Dar thought he was toast, too. Hawkeye disagreed to set Smith loose.
Few sports offer the same scope for momentum shifts and narrative twists as this. Australia’s openers David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, two of the sandpaper three, walked to the middle to cacophonous boos. With his third ball of the innings turning Bancroft inside out England’s new No 9 Anderson appeared engaged in a one-man mission to teach the bad guys a lesson.
Broad likewise, drawing a nick from Warner with his first ball. England didn’t review it. It was but a brief reprieve. Nine balls later Warner was first wicket down with the score on two, walking after the ball smashed into his pads. Had he reviewed he would have survived. It was a recurring theme, the umpires not having the best of days.
In a breathless opening spell, Broad had Bancroft caught at slip to bring Smith to the crease with the score on 17-2. Chris Woakes joined the party to have Usman Khawaja caught behind with the score on 35.
The ball jagging all over the place, England’s attack appeared unanswerable despite the absence of Anderson.
Australia held on until lunch, thereafter losing five wickets for 23 runs. Everything Root tried came off, including the wicket of Australian captain Tim Paine, caught hooking on the square leg boundary for five in front of a Hollies citizenry that took great joy in reminding him what a raucous bearpit Edgbaston can be.
Not bad for a ground that hitherto did not feature in the top 15 of Paine’s personal gallery of intimidating arenas.
Rory Burns and Jason Roy survived the two-over trial at the close without remotely testing the notion that this might already be Australia’s match to lose. This was a day that belonged entirely to Smith, a batsman of unfathomable depths who took the first steps towards redeeming a career that lay in bits about his feet just 16 months ago.
Australia have not won an Ashes series in England for 18 years. Edgbaston has been a graveyard for them. Ridiculously it seems we have already reached a turning point just three weeks after England were crowned World Cup winners. And all because of one man’s indomitable spirit. Let there be no more booing of Smith, for England’s sake.