Steve Smith masterclass means England faced with daunting task of chasing 398 for victory
Australia in driver's seat ahead of fifth and final day of first Test at Edgbaston
England will have to bat all of Monday to save the first Ashes Test after the latest Steve Smith masterclass put Australia into a position of power in Birmingham.
Smith’s second century of the match, plus Matthew Wade’s first Test ton in six years, laid the platform for the touring side’s huge third-innings total of 487-7.
That meant England have been set a daunting 398 to win. A chase seems unrealistic, on a worn pitch that is likely to aid the off-spin of Nathan Lyon.
But the fact the home team reached 13-0, with few concerns, in the seven overs they faced before stumps on Day 4 will give them the belief the match can at least be saved.
Whatever happens from here on in, it seems unlikely this match will be remembered for anything other than the extraordinary exploits of Australia’s returning batting maestro.
In adding 142 to the 144 he made in the first innings, Smith became the first player to score hundreds in either innings of an Ashes Test since Matthew Hayden in 2002.
Yet again, England were powerless to stop him, at least not until he showed a slight loss of concentration on his 207th ball and edged behind off Chris Woakes.
It got the point where even the Sky TV commentators were at a loss, and they posed the question to the crowd instead, via the ear pieces that carry the commentary: “Does anyone have any idea how to get Steve Smith out?”
Steve Waugh, who once made centuries in either innings of an Ashes Test in Manchester, said he has never seen anything like it.
Speaking on Australia’s Channel 9 during the lunch break, at which point Smith was on 98, Waugh described Smith as being in a “trance-like state” when he is at the crease.
“He's an incredible player, I don't think I've seen anything quite like him,” Waugh said.
“His appetite for runs is second to none. His technique is amazing, it's unique, but he knows what he's doing and how to score runs. He analyses every ball and it's like a computer, he spits out the answer."
It is questionable what is the more remarkable. The fact that Smith can be this good, despite having not played a first-class match – let alone a Test – in the previous 16 months.
Or the fact that the last time he had played at Edgbaston, he had been a pitiful figure of ridicule, as England savaged his bowling, as well as his team, in the semi-final of the World Cup they went on to win.
In that match, on July 11, Jason Roy took the one over Smith bowled for 21 runs, and in so doing hit the biggest six seen in recent times at England’s most atmospheric ground.
If 16 months are a long time in cricket then so, too, are three weeks. Now at Edgbaston, the fevered support in the Hollies Stand might be able to merrily sing all day “Stand up for the champions", and be factually correct about the home side.
But, given the way this Test match has unfolded, it is ringing a little hollow. England’s one-day side might be market leaders, but in their Test guise, they remain a middling side with varied flaws.
Roy, for example, is a trailblazer in 50-over cricket, but is still finding his way in whites. Playing in just his second Test, he will have to shoulder some of the burden of helping save the game on Day 5.
At the other end, he will be joined by his close mate Rory Burn, who will, when he takes the wicket, have batted on every day of the Test match.
Updated: August 4, 2019 10:10 PM