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Smith puts on batting masterclass as Australia edge ahead

A resilient England were admirable for two-and-a-half days but Steve Smith, the inspirational Australian captain, has seemingly crushed their spirit after a masterclass century to propel his team into the ascendancy of the first Ashes Test in Brisbane on Saturday (November 25).

With the Test evenly poised heading into day three, a Smith compiled an unbeaten 141 from 326 balls and gained important lower-order support to help Australia rally to a first innings of 328 and handy lead of 26 runs.

In response, a besieged England reached stumps at a wobbly 33/2, a lead of just seven runs. Opener Mark Stoneman is 18 not out and captain Joe Root unbeaten on 5. Opener Alastair Cook (7) fell in the fourth over after hooking straight to Mitchell Starc, who completed an athletic take near the boundary. It was a well-directed bouncer from a determined Josh Hazlewood (2 for 11) and ensured a double failure for the out-of-form Cook.

Hazlewood, who struggled in the first innings, conjured a dangerous concoction of bounce and pace – a combination in-form James Vince (2) couldn’t handle as England slumped 2 for 17. Sensing a golden opportunity, Australia’s star-studded attack roared in with Starc hitting Root on the helmet with a brutal bouncer during a hostile barrage for England’s batsmen before stumps.

The Test has suddenly changed course and Australia are in the driver’s seat through Smith’s singlemindedness. In his latest wonder knock, the 28-year-old exuded patience and thwarted England’s best attempts at drying the runs. The peerless batsman shelved the cover drive for much of the innings but, ironically, he pulled out the flamboyant stroke to smash a boundary and reach the 21st century of his already remarkable career.

Smith thumped his Australian crest in an emotional celebration to his teammates after a somewhat wobbly start to the series for the favourites. With the wheels slowly falling off after an early stranglehold, England’s woes deepened with fears of a side strain injury to spearhead James Anderson, who did bowl in the final session.

Resuming on 64 not out, Smith overcame a targeted short-pitched bowling onslaught from the England quicks in an absorbing first session filled with endless mind games. Smith only scored 17 runs from 66 balls in the session but importantly provided the stability after an early stutter for the hosts, who were in strife at 209/7.

After such a sterling partnership late on day two, hopes were high for Smith and Shaun Marsh to build a potential match-winning partnership. However, shortly after reaching a hard-fought half-century in his latest Test comeback, Marsh (51) – continuing a trend throughout his stuttering career – failed to go on with the business. Deceived by a cunning Broad slow leg-cutter, Marsh tamely spooned the ball to mid-off ending the rear-guard 99-run partnership.

Runs were once again hard to muster with a prepared England sticking to their diligent plans. Workhorses Stuart Broad (3 for 49) and Anderson (2 for 50) relentlessly bowled accurately, stifling the normally freewheeling Australian batsmen.

Root, perhaps taking a page out of Australia’s beloved mantra, introduced a left-field strategy and reverted to a bouncer barrage in a desperate bid to rattle the imperious Smith.

England quick Chris Woakes took the responsibly of being the enforcer and repeatedly bowled short at around 140kmh, as Root changed up the field almost every delivery. In a bizarre sight, there were often no slips as Root loaded up the catchers on the leg-side.

Despite Root’s trickery and attempts at mind games, Smith continued to stonewall but he was – not for the first time – running out of support with England striking twice with the new ball before lunch.

Tim Paine, in his first Test innings for seven years, took 11 balls to get off the mark but his dreams of a fairytale comeback were dashed when he nicked Anderson’s fourth ball with the new ball.

The pitch, although slow, was certainly no minefield and favoured those willing to grind away and exude patience. Once set, batsmen – while never feeling totally comfortable – were hard to dislodge as England painfully found out trying to prise out determined No.9 Pat Cummins.

Cummins, an extremely capable lower-order batsman, dug in to provide much needed support for Smith before expanding once set, most notably when he clubbed Moeen Ali’s offspin over long on for a huge six.

The partnership frustrated and stymied England’s confidence during a lacklustre second session for the tourists. Smith and Cummins batted for almost the entirety of the second session before the struggling Woakes provided the much needed breakthrough by claiming the scalp of Cummins (42 from 120 balls). It ended a match-turning partnership of 66 just when Australia were on the brink.

Smith later combined with Nathan Lyon in an invaluable 30-run last wicket stand to edge Australia ahead. Once again, Smith has changed the course of a Test match and one fancies it won’t be the only time this summer.

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