Ashes: Australia's Steve Smith continues to be thorn in England side despite knock on helmet

Batsman unbeaten on 46 as tourists set to begin fourth day of topsy-turvy first Test 34 runs ahead with seven wickets left

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 03: Steve Smith of Australia is struck on the helmet by a delivery from Ben Stokes of England during day three of the 1st Specsavers Ashes Test between England and Australia at Edgbaston on August 03, 2019 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
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England have struggled forever to find a way to get Steve Smith out. At one point in the evening session on Day 3 of the first Ashes Test, it appeared as though they might have at least found a way to knock him out instead.

Having reached 41 off 52 balls in Australia’s second innings reply in a tense Test match, Smith was hit on the side of the helmet by a fiery bouncer from Ben Stokes.

He was treated on the field by the Australian team doctor, and, for a moment, it appeared as though perhaps the master batsman might become the first player in Test cricket to make way for a concussion substitute.

He was deemed fit enough to play on, but it did beg the question: what would have happened had he showed signs of being concussed?

The new playing conditions stipulate that teams can swap in a “like for like” replacement for players who have suffered head injuries, as per the judgment of the match referee.

So who, precisely, qualifies as a like for like replacement for Smith? The player with the highest Test batting average currently playing the game, and second only in history behind Don Bradman.

When the doctor was running Smith through the list of random questions that are mandatory as part of the head injury assessment process, he might well have asked: “When was the last time you were out?”

If Smith had answered, “I can’t remember,” the doctor might have been within his rights to let him just carry on. Can anyone remember when Steve Smith was last out? For anything less than a hundred, anyway?

The Test match now feels largely balanced on just how many Smith makes from here, following his first innings 144.

As bad light brought a premature close to Saturday’s play at Edgbaston, Australia had reached 124-3, giving them a lead of 34. Smith will start Day 4 on 46, and is clearly the wicket prized most by the home team.

England will not be too perturbed by the position they find themselves in, even if they are a bowler down because of the calf injury that has kept James Anderson to all but four overs of bowling in the game.

Anderson did, at least, hold up an end with the bat as England eked out their first innings lead to 90.

Australia's Steve Smith (R) is checked over by medical staff after being struck by the ball during play on the third day of the first Ashes cricket test match between England and Australia at Edgbaston in Birmingham, central England on August 3, 2019. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. NO ASSOCIATION WITH DIRECT COMPETITOR OF SPONSOR, PARTNER, OR SUPPLIER OF THE ECB
Steve Smith is checked over by medical staff after being struck by the ball. Lindsey Parnaby / AFP

He would likely be employed to do the same if the last innings run chase gets close, but his involvement with the ball looks finished for this game – and perhaps for some of the matches to follow, too.

Being without the most prolific seam bowler in Test history is an obvious handicap for England, but they have firepower elsewhere in their line-up.

For the second time in the match, Stuart Broad accounted for David Warner for a single-figure score, as the home bowlers were bayed on by a typically raucous Hollies Stand.

Moeen Ali accounted for Cameron Bancroft – whose dismissal looked to be met by a verbal volley by wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow – when he had the returning Australia opener caught by Jos Buttler at short leg.

After Usman Khawaja and Smith shared a stand worth 48, Khawaja fell to the second ball Stokes bowled in the innings, as he feathered a catch behind to Bairstow.

Earlier, England had suffered a mini-collapse once Stokes had gone for 50 and Rory Burns’ vigil had finally ended after 312 balls on 133.

The batting struggles of Bairstow and Moeen continued, but a 65-run stand for the ninth wicket between Chris Woakes and Broad helped England to a first-innings cushion that may yet prove crucial.