BIRMINGHAM, England, Aug 4 (Reuters) - Steve Smith became only the fifth Australian to make two centuries in the same Ashes test as another imperious, near-perfect innings on Sunday put a blunt England attack to the sword and left them on the brink of defeat in the Ashes opener at Edgbaston.
On his return to the test arena for the first time in 16 months, there was some doubt how Smith would fare against England.
But within two innings Smith’s back-to-back centuries had helped Australia set England a daunting 398 runs to win the Ashes opener, the 30-year-old moving level with Steve Waugh on 10 Ashes tons but from just over half the number of tests and innings.
“I have never doubted my ability,” Smith said. “To score two hundreds in a match in a first Ashes test is incredible.
“I have never done it any form of cricket. It is special. I’ve loved these last four days, it’s felt like Christmas morning every morning, it has been a dream comeback.”
Smith was stripped of the captaincy and handed a 12-month ban by Cricket Australia after team mate Cameron Bancroft was caught on camera attempting to change the condition of the ball with sandpaper during a March 2018 test in South Africa.
Bancroft and David Warner were also banned for their part in the incident and they returned to test action with Smith on Thursday. While Warner has endured his third-worst return in tests in which he has batted twice, Smith has picked up where he left off. “When he goes out to bat it’s almost like he’s in a trance-like state,” Steve Waugh, said.
“He knows exactly what he’s trying to do, exactly what the opposition are trying to do and he analyses every ball - it’s like a computer, he spits out the answer.”
What set both of Smith’s innings at Edgbaston apart is how few chances he offered England.
Even without injured strike bowler James Anderson, England still possessed options in veteran Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes — fresh from career-best figures in his last test — and Ben Stokes.
Moeen Ali, despite being England’s leading wicket taker in test matches in the last 12 months, looked out of sorts. Smith, however, looked unflappable whoever he was facing.
Scoring two such innings under pressure after 16 months away from red ball cricket is not something that comes without hard work.
“I hadn’t faced a red ball in a long time, so it was about finding a rhythm and getting out of white-ball mode,” Smith added. “I don’t change a great deal, but there are little things, like the way I hold my bat, or how I move across the crease.
“I found my rhythm two days before the game and topped it up the day before. I was in a good place.”
A raucous England crowd at Edgbaston booed his every move, taunting him at every given opportunity over the sandpaper scandal. It could have unsettled a lesser player.
But Smith stood up to it all, producing an almost flawless batting display under pressure, not once but twice. And that same boisterous crowd stood up to applaud when he reached the mark for the second time.
Should England fail to record the second highest successful run chase in Ashes history - or, indeed, fail to bat out day five - Australia will win at fortress Edgbaston for the first time in 18 years. And Smith’s contribution will have made all the difference. (Reporting by Peter Hall; editing by Tony Lawrence)