Ashes 2019: Steve Smith pulls Australia back from the brink with century against England

Batsman's 144 on his first appearance back in Test cricket in 498 days propped up an otherwise limp opening effort by Australia on Day 1 of the first Test at Edgbaston

Australia's Steve Smith celebrates his century on the opening day of the first Ashes cricket Test match between England and Australia at Edgbaston in Birmingham, central England on August 1, 2019. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. NO ASSOCIATION WITH DIRECT COMPETITOR OF SPONSOR, PARTNER, OR SUPPLIER OF THE ECB
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England’s bowlers might have been forgiven for thinking they had a chance.

Surely, given all he had been through since they last saw him in whites, Steve Smith might be just a little bit fragile. He has had a lot on, after all.

But, no, apparently not. Eighteen months after flaying England to the tune of 687 runs in a 4-0 home Ashes romp, Smith was back in the old routine immeditaley.

He made a century on his first appearance back in Test cricket in 498 days, to prop up an otherwise limp opening effort by Australia in The Ashes.

Since he last played the format, Smith had been outed for cheating, lost the Australia captaincy, cried on television, been banned for a year, lost a fortune in earnings, started again via club cricket, and lately been reintegrated in the international game – without being universally welcomed.

Even now, he was baited by the home support, who roundly booed his entry to the crease, and sporadically goaded him by singing, “We saw you cry on the telly,” and, “You’re going to cry in a minute.”

It appeared very much as though they might get their wish when, late in the afternoon session at Edgbaston, he carved Ben Stokes through cover to reach three figures.

Fair to say, he was moved by the moment. He sucked in deep breaths. But the tears did not come. He refused to yield, either to the opposition fans, or the opposition bowlers.

It felt like he had never been away. Australia are currently in possession of the Ashes urn largely because of Smith’s extraordinary feats in 2017-18.

That series features innings worth of 141 not out, 239, and 102 not out, and during which time England were clueless as to finding a way to get him out.

He has only played three Test matches since – on the portentous tour of South Africa that followed – but England are still no closer to figuring him out.

It was early in the evening session, with Australia struggling and a century still some way off, when Nasser Hussain mused on commentary that England were probably down to Plan E by now.

In concert with Peter Siddle first, then Nathan Lyon, Smith was able to add 162 for the last two wickets for the touring side.

It might yet prove crucial. When Australia had been 122-8, England were flying. And well they needed to be, given that James Anderson looks to have succumbed to his calf injury, having managed just four overs at the start of the day.

Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes shouldered the burden excellently in the absence of their senior colleague, and were largely to thank for bringing the away side to their knees.

Broad had accounted for both the other Australians making their returns from bans for their role in the sandpaper controversy, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft.

The duo shared the burden of the cacophony of boos directed at them as they opened the batting together.

Their resistance was short-lived, though. Broad trapped Warner LBW for two, then had Bancroft caught at slip by Joe Root for eight shortly after.

And yet at no point was there any answer to the Smith conundrum. By the time Broad did get him, his fifth scalp of the innings and 100 in his career against Australia, the complexion of the game had completely altered.

It took Australia to 284. Not a guaranteed match-winning total, of course, but far better than it might have otherwise been.

England’s openers, Jason Roy and Rory Burns, survived the two overs they had to face at the end of the day, as they reached 10 for no loss by the close.