IMAGES: Australia’s Steve Smith reacts after being struck on the helmet by a delivery from England’s Ben Stokes during Day 3 of the first Ashes Test. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters
Steve Smith has scored almost half of Australia’s runs himself in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston; how he performs on day four is likely to have a big say in who gains the early advantage in the series.
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 returned to Test action 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.
He rescued his side when it was in big trouble at 122-8 in the first innings with his 23rd Test ton in just 64 matches and his unbeaten 45 in the second innings dragged Australia, 27-2 when he came to the crease, out of the mire again.
“If you could sort out a dodgy breakfast for him that would be great,” joked England bowler Chris Woakes, whose side trails Australia by 34 runs.
“We’ll go back to the drawing board and figure out what works best on this wicket.
“He is obviously a world class player, but we need to find a way to get him out.”
That is easier said than done.
Smith currently averages 145.71 in his last 10 Test innings against England.
While Rory Burns’s century in England’s first innings was full of class and determination, he survived many near misses, two reviews, one leg before wicket appeal that was not given, with replays showing he was fortunate to escape.
Smith, though, has looked unflappable throughout all three days at Edgbaston so far. Even a nasty blow on the head on the end of a bouncer from Ben Stokes late on Saturday did little to unnerve the former captain.
“Smithy is batting unbelievably,” Australia bowler James Pattinson said.
“I was talking about great players to the press before, and I said the best players stand up when it really matters, and he has done that here against England.
“He lifts the group when he is out there.”
It looks like it will be down to Smith to help steer his side to what could be an unlikely victory.
Remove him early on Sunday, and England will fancy their chances of quickly wrapping up an opening win.