Steve Smith’s relentless double century demoralised England and put Australia in prime position to retain the Ashes after two days of the fourth Test at Old Trafford today.
Smith remorselessly worked his way to 211 – taking advantage of being dropped by Jofra Archer on 65 and dismissed off a Jack Leach no-ball on 118 – to lead the tourists to 497 for 8 declared.
His third century of the series took his tally of runs to 584 and average to 194.66, all despite having missed the third Test because of concussion.
Even with the brilliance of Smith, England may have had the chance to chip away at the other end had Australia captain Tim Paine not been dropped twice in his 58.
Instead, their tired attack was flogged by Mitchell Starc’s 54 not out as the tourists, who at various points could have been 246-6 or 273-6, surged towards a declaration.
England were given a difficult 10 overs to bat and lost Joe Denly to Matthew Wade’s superb reaction catch at short leg to close on 23-1. Rory Burns has 15 and nightwatchman Craig Overton three.
All is not lost for the home side – the placid pitch should provide no obstacles as they bid to bat well into Saturday in order to get close to the Australia total.
However, because Australia have such a large score on the board, any sort of England collapse could see the Ashes secured with a Test to spare.
In the same way that all of England’s plans for Smith have been exhausted – he also racked up 687 runs in the 2017-18 Ashes series down under – so too are there no more superlatives for unquenchable desire to bat for hours on end.
In just four innings he has become the leading run-scorer in Test cricket this year, a remarkable achievement considering he did not play a five-day match until August 1 because of his ban for the ball-tampering scandal.
If there was any question that he would be rattled by the blow from Archer that concussed him at Lord’s, Smith answered with another peerless display of patience, sound judgement and an ability to hit the ball in areas where only he is capable.
Yes, he had the fortune of the reprieves, but he capitalised to flatten both the home side and the Old Trafford crowd, the latter mercifully allowed to watch in more pleasant conditions after the rain and cold of Wednesday.
Throughout the World Cup and the first two Tests, Smith was booed at every opportunity – when he walked out to the middle, reached a milestone, even when he came back out to bat after being hit by Archer.
This time, when he was finally dismissed, Old Trafford gave him a standing ovation, recognition that they were witnessing an Ashes performance for the ages.
Former England captain Michael Vaughan commenting on BBC Test Match Special described Smith as an artist – “the greatest artist I have seen. I love watching him bat.” (BBC)