Three years ago, England ridiculed Steve Smith for a remark that suggested he had been chosen by Australia because he knew a few good jokes. After the first day at the WACA, it is safe to assume the tourists aren’t laughing any more.
Smith became a figure of fun for England during their 3-1 win here in 2010-11, yet his second Ashes century, and his first in Australia, might prove decisive in helping his country regain the urn.
Australia lead the five-match series 2-0 and will reclaim the Ashes with victory here. At first, their ultra-positive approach played into England’s hands and the home side slipped to 143 for five.
Yet by the time Smith pulled a short ball from Ben Stokes for four to reach his hundred, Australia were closing in on 300, thanks largely to a sixth-wicket partnership of 124 between Smith and Brad Haddin.
At stumps, Australia were 326 for six, with Smith 103 not out. Against an England side who have failed to reach 200 in three of their four innings, Michael Clarke and his team will be feeling very confident. For his opposite number, Alastair Cook, there will be more uncomfortable hours of worrying and wondering. In the extreme heat, his side bowled only 87 of the allotted 90 overs in an extended day.
The disappointment was audible in Cook’s voice after he lost the toss for the third consecutive time in the series, as Clarke, like Cook playing in his 100th Test, chose to bat first, with the temperature always close to the 100 degrees (F) mark.
It was not the start Cook wanted but he was soon smiling when, at the end of the second over, Chris Rogers called for a quick single, hesitated, and was run out by Jimmy Anderson’s direct hit from midwicket. Yet despite that mishap, Australia had clearly made a decision to attack the tourists’ bowling and try to crush their spirit by the end of day one.
Because of that plan, England’s inconsistent bowling and the speedy WACA outfield, Australia were able to score at nearly a run a ball, with David Warner finding the boundary regularly.
Shane Watson was also starting to accelerate until he played at a delivery from Stuart Broad that he could have left alone and Graeme Swann leapt to take the catch at second slip.
Then, Warner tried to pull Tim Bresnan – who was preferred to Chris Tremlett as England’s third seamer – but mistimed the shot. The bowler just failed to cling on to what would have been a brilliant one-handed catch, and Warner made Bresnan feel even worse by hitting him for four and six in the same over.
At the other end, Clarke had cruised to 24 and was surely thinking of a third straight hundred. Swann had other ideas, though, tempting Clarke into a drive with his first delivery to the newly-crowned ICC cricketer of the year. Clarke scooped it to Cook at short midwicket, to leave Australia 107 for three at lunch.
Warner moved to his half-century shortly after the interval and looked in command, until his penchant for aggression betrayed him. The left-hander attempted to cut Swann but was undone by the extra bounce and the top-edge looped tamely to Michael Carberry at backward point.
Suddenly, England were in the game again, with Smith and George Bailey, two relative Test novices, at the crease.
Broad was brought into the attack from the Members End and he quickly exposed Bailey. Two short-balls unsettled the batsman and when the third reared off the surface, Bailey chose to hook and was caught at deep backward square-leg by Kevin Pietersen.
Here was another chance for England. Unfortunately for them, though, they could not take it, just as they had failed to seize similar opportunities in Brisbane and Adelaide. Stokes replaced Broad but could not maintain pressure, while Haddin, whose century in Adelaide owed a great deal to good fortune, rode his luck again here.
A top-edged pull off Bresnan drifted into the Fremantle Doctor, the sea breeze that blows across the WACA during the afternoon, and fell short of Broad at long leg. Then, Haddin gloved a bouncer from Broad on to his other arm, which ensured it dropped short of the slip cordon.
Further streaky strokes brought no punishment as Haddin, with two half-centuries and a hundred already in this series, started to find rhythm and posted a century stand with Smith, as England feared their moment had passed. Smith had played very well, punishing most short deliveries and using his feet superbly to Swann.
Smith had moved into the eighties when Haddin, who was lucky again when Carberry and Joe Root left a catching chance to one another, was finally dismissed for 55. A miscued pull off Stokes was taken by Anderson at midwicket while Stokes, who was denied his first Test scalp in Adelaide when Haddin was caught off a no-ball, was very close to the front line again on this occasion.
Another quick wicket was needed, but did not come. Mitchell Johnson, Australia’s star fast bowler, was allowed to settle and when England took the new ball, he treated short deliveries with disdain. If Johnson’s punchy, unbeaten 39 is an indication of what will happen when bowls, England had better look out.