Determined Smith ensures pressure stays squarely on England

After the first hour of play on Friday (December 15) at the WACA, when England had reached 356 for 4, it looked like this would be a day to remember for the tourists. By the close, Australia, finishing on 203 for 3 and 200 runs behind, had dragged themselves back into the match and, on balance, are probably just ahead.

It was the home side’s pace bowling attack and the batting of captain Steve Smith which has turned the complexion of this match. When Dawid Malan was dismissed shortly after drinks in the first session, England collapsed in a heap in the face of quick, hostile bowling, losing six wickets for 35 runs in all. They were bowled out for 403 on the stroke of lunch when a more dominant total of 550 had looked on the cards.

By the end of play, Smith had serenely reached 92 not out with such ease that it is hard to think he will not reach his 22nd Test hundred tomorrow morning. Australia’s pace trio and the batting of Smith have been two of the major differences between these two sides during the two and a half Tests so far, and yet again England found them too difficult to handle here.

Smith looked in ominous form from the moment he arrived at the crease. He laced boundaries down the ground and through cover and midwicket early on as England’s bowlers bowled both sides of the wicket. Smith, though, barely missed out on a bad ball. Overall 62 of his 92 runs came in boundaries and only when Craig Overton got the last ball before tea to rise sharply at him, catching the glove and then helmet, did Australia’s captain look uncomfortable.

Could England have done anything different? Perhaps. Smith was allowed to ease into his innings against Overton and Chris Woakes and took advantage of some loose balls on offer as well as the lightning-quick WACA outfield. In an aberration, the tourists’ best bowler, James Anderson only bowled four of the first 34 overs of Australia’s innings and Smith had faced 51 balls by the time he came on to bowl.

Overton had made the first two breakthroughs for England after Australia had moved to 44 for no loss relatively comfortably. David Warner pushed at a full ball from the crease and was caught behind for 22 and Cameron Bancroft was out shortly after when umpire Marais Erasmus turned down a huge appeal for LBW but England reviewed and the decision was overturned on DRS.

Usman Khawaja could have been gone to the second ball he faced but Overton failed to hang on to a tough caught and bowled chance, diving at full stretch to his left. On 28, the left-hander flashed Woakes through second slip. Joe Root hardly had time to move let alone catch it and there was another dropped catch late in the day when Mark Stoneman failed to hold on to a chance at short-leg off Shaun Marsh which had rebounded off his boot. All three drops were extremely tough chances but on such margins are Test matches decided.

Once the hardness of the new ball had gone, the WACA pitch flattened out and apart from the odd ball that bounced unusually, conditions were about as friendly for batting as there could be. Smith and Khawaja, less fluent than his captain, put on 124 for the third wicket before Woakes nipped a full ball back to Khawaja and pinned him on the crease. Erasmus gave him out LBW and despite a review, the decision was upheld on umpire’s call.

Khawaja had battled manfully and played Moeen Ali’s off-spin, a type of bowling he has so struggled with, comfortably enough although the commentators suggested that he could have been more pro-active. Once he had gone, Smith and Marsh saw the home side through to the close and England’s hopes of winning this Test rest on getting one or both of these batsmen out early tomorrow morning.

Earlier, Jonny Bairstow had followed in Malan’s footsteps yesterday by scoring his first Ashes hundred. Bairstow’s 119 was the best of his four Test hundreds to date and vindicated England’s pre-match decision to move him up to number six. It still surprises that he was not there from the start of the series.

England’s wicketkeeper, resuming on 75, scored mainly on the front foot and drove Pat Cummins twice for four emphatically through the off-side during the first hour of play. To anything short, he either left it or nudged it into the leg-side.

When Bairstow reached his hundred, he let out a scream of exultation and punched the air. In a nod – excuse the pun – to his headbutt greeting of Bancroft earlier in the tour which elicited such outraged headlines from the local press, he knocked his helmet against his head a couple of times before raising his bat to the crowd. In the dressing room, Root had a chuckle.

The partnership between Malan and Bairstow ended when Malan came down to the pitch to Nathan Lyon, attempting to hit him over long-on, and was caught off the leading edge by a diving Peter Handscomb who was on the field as a substitute. The stand was worth 237 runs, the highest English fifth-wicket partnership in Australia, and had put England in an excellent position from which to post a match-winning score. Instead, although the 403 they finished with may still win them the game, it was probably no more than par.

Once Malan went, it was a procession. Moeen Ali lasted just two balls before meekly fending Cummins to second slip and Chris Woakes scored just eight before he was unluckily caught at fine leg off Hazlewood when flicking a delivery off his hip. Bairstow was next to go, bowled attempting to hit a straight ball from Mitchell Starc through square leg, and then Overton was bounced out by Hazlewood.

Stuart Broad was the last man to go shortly after he had smashed Hazlewood for six to bring up England’s 400. In the next over, he was caught at short-leg off Starc who, despite not being at his best in this innings, finished with 4 for 91. Hazlewood, the pick of the bowlers, ended with 3 for 92 and the home side’s quicks had engineered yet another lower order collapse to go with those in Brisbane – 6 for 56 and 5 for 40 – and Adelaide – 7 for 64.

Today was also yet another opportunity which England have had in this series but failed to take. They are proving they can compete but Australia’s x-factor players, Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins, and Smith, are winning the key moments. It remains to be seen whether the visitors’ profligacy on day two at the WACA costs them this match and the Ashes.

Brief Scores: England 403 (Dawid Malan 140, Jonny Bairstow 119, Mark Stoneman 56; Mitchell Starc 4/91, Josh Hazlewood 3/92) lead Australia 203/3 (Steve Smith 92*, Usman Khawaja 50; Craig Overton 2/46) by 200 runs.

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