As the floodlights flickered into life towards the end of another absorbing day of Ashes cricket, one man stood between England and a 1-0 lead. With an inevitability that may drive Joe Root’s side to distraction before the summer is out, that man was Steve Smith.
When the third evening of this first Test was ended 25 minutes prematurely by the Birmingham gloom, Smith was unbeaten on 46 out of Australia’s 124 for three, to go with his majestic 144 in their first-innings 284. It would be slightly unfair to say their batting line-up is a one-man band – but only slightly. Smith has been composer, conductor and lead violinist, all in one.
Australia lead by 34 on a pitch offering turn, and both sides know the fate of the game, perhaps even the series, rests in his hands. Get him early on Sunday, and England can extend their enviable record at a venue where they have lost only one Test since 2001. Fail, and they may end up chasing too many against Nathan Lyon’s off-spin. Rarely can one player have felt like the answer to every question.
Australia talisman Smith scored a century in the first innings, and is the tourists’ best hope of setting England a lofty target
England captain Joe Root has his head in his hands as they struggled to contain Australia’s counter-attack with the bat
Smith attempts a pull shot but is hit on the helmet as he battles back for Australia against England at Edgbaston
Smith grimaces after the impact of Stokes’ bouncer thundering into the grille of his helmet late in the day’s play
The umpires discuss the bad light at the end of the day, eventually deciding to call play off just after 18:00
Ben Stokes deliberates a potential review after striking Steve Smith on the pads as England push for his crucial wicket
Smith’s post-sandpaper redemption was a box ticked on Thursday, but that was never going to be enough for a cricketer who regards batting as his first, his last, his everything.
Only when Ben Stokes briefly had him staggering about the crease with a blow to the helmet did he look anything other than in control. The rest of the time, England had little idea how to contain him, let alone get him out.
As for Australia, they were deeply indebted to the work of their former captain after he emerged with the scoreboard reading 27 for two, still 63 from making England bat again.
For the second time in the game, Stuart Broad had removed David Warner from round the wicket, though it needed technology’s latest intervention after umpire Wilson failed to spot a big deflection through to Jonny Bairstow.
Uniquely, Warner had made two single-figures scores in an Ashes Test. To the delight of the Hollies Stand, his redemption would have to wait.
Moeen Ali then had Cameron Bancroft caught at short leg for seven, only for Smith and Usman Khawaja to launch a counter-attack that pushed England – still without the injured Jimmy Anderson – on the back foot.
They were lifted by a familiar figure: Stokes’s second ball jagged back to catch the inside edge of the left-handed Khawaja’s bat, and Australia were 75 for three, still 15 behind. The crowd rumbled back into life.
But Ali exerted little pressure, and runs flowed at four an over. Smith simply chose his gaps, as if driven by a sixth sense, while Travis Head survived a run-out chance to Rory Burns on nine to help add an unbroken 49.
Like the rest of his team-mates, however, Head resembled a bit-part actor on a stage designed specifically for the lead role.
England bowler Ben Stokes celebrates the dismissal of Usman Khawaja for 40 as England claim a third wicket
England celebrate the early dismissal of Cameron Bancroft, caught by Jos Buttler off Moeen Ali’s spin bowling
David Warner’s disappointing return to Test cricket continued as he was dismissed for just two on Saturday
Earlier, England were dismissed in their first innings for 374, a total that at various points looked both fewer than they should have made, and a lot more. Resuming on 267 for four, they might have been thinking of a Test-clinching 450, only for a familiar collapse to force a reassessment.
Stokes reached his seventh international half-century of a bounteous summer, but looked in such good nick that over-confidence seemed his greatest enemy. Sure enough, an attempted cut off Pat Cummins soon nestled in the gloves of Tim Paine.
Burns, meanwhile, was biding his time, as if keen to savour every moment as an unbeaten centurion in his first Ashes Test. Having begun the day on 125, he became the first England opener other than Alastair Cook to last 300 minutes in a Test innings since 2013, and celebrated with a cover-drive for four off Peter Siddle.
Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad embrace in the middle after helping England claim a healthy first-innings lead
Australia managed to limit England to a 90-run first innings lead after dismissing Burns and Stokes in the morning session
David Warner jokes with the Edgbaston crowd after a series of chants aimed at the Australian opener on the boundary rope
The law of averages, though, dictated that one of his countless plays and misses – 40, by some reckoning – would eventually morph into an outside edge. On 133, he was drawn to an off-break from Lyon, and Paine took a smart catch.
But this was not the moment to quibble about luck. England have searched high and low for an opening batsman made of the right stuff, and the standing ovation that greeted his departure suggested the Edgbaston crowd had found their man. If Burns’s technique has so many moving parts it looks like a kaleidoscope, his temperament is solidity itself.
The same could not be said of England’s lower middle order. Five balls after the wicket of Burns, Ali offered no shot to one from Lyon that turned less than he expected, and lost his off stump. A wag on Twitter described it as the worst attempted leave since Brexit, but right now Ali is in no mood for jokes.
This was his fifth duck in 14 Test innings since the start of the Sri Lanka tour last year, in which time he has averaged 11. The description of him as an all-rounder is a courtesy based on a distant memory.
Neither did Bairstow hint at permanence. Five balls after Ali’s demise, he flashed at a ball from Siddle that was too close to him, and gave Warner catching practice at first slip. It was a dreadful shot, and left England 300 for eight – only 16 ahead. Bairstow’s last nine Test innings at home have yielded an average of five. He and his side deserve better.
Moeen Ali’s miserable form with the bat continued as he was bowled by Nathan Lyon while offering no shot
The crowd were in fine voice on Day 3, with these fans dressed as the 1966 World Cup winners stealing the show
A quick kill beckoned, but instead Chris Woakes and Broad batted with the good sense that Ali and Bairstow had lacked, even if they were helped by a tiring four-man attack who failed to bounce Broad until the ninth wicket had put on 65.
Cummins finally twigged, sending down a bumper barrage from round the wicket that induced a flap to fine leg. But by then Broad had hung around for 67 balls – his longest Test innings since Trent Bridge 2013, when he enraged Australia by failing to walk for an edge.
Anderson emerged for his first contribution to this game since leaving the field on the first morning with a calf injury, but when he fell to Lyon, England’s lead was 90. It was useful, but the presence of Smith meant it was not decisive.
Australia have not won an Ashes Test in this country after conceding a first-innings deficit since Trent Bridge in 1981, a series that would become renowned for other reasons. If Smith is not to dominate an English summer as Ian Botham did nearly four decades ago, Root’s bowlers will have to come up with a plan – and quickly.