Australia v New Zealand, 2nd Test, Perth, 4th day November 16, 2015

Captain Smith clears first significant hurdle

When Steven Smith walked to the crease in the second innings, the match was poised in New Zealand's favour. But by the time he batted through to stumps, he had wrested it back

Steven Smith savours his first century in the second innings © Getty Images

With the possible exception of Greg Chappell in the early 1980s, the Australian captaincy is not an office that can be transferred at times of undue stress. Steven Smith knew that when he took over from Michael Clarke that there would likely be as many tough days and good ones, where the job needs to be done without frills or fancy, and where criticism would arrive just as easily as praise.

After a straightforward win over New Zealand at the Gabba and then a dominant first two days in Perth, Smith ran headlong into his first major trial as leader. In Kane Williamson he was confronted by a classical batsman his bowlers could not dominate, and in Ross Taylor a less orthodox stayer they could not budge.

Both were aided by a WACA pitch that has shared more in common with a strip of bitumen than a patch of the famously fast clay-based turf the ground once boasted. To reiterate he had tried to prepare a fast surface, the curator Matthew Page said "we're always compared to the olden days," and as day four drew to a close it was possible to conclude that Australia's bowlers will now look a little more eagerly towards a future at Burswood Stadium, drop-in wicket or not.

Nevertheless, an Australian side tallying 559 in quick time over two days of intense heat in the second of back-to-back Tests had to like their odds of coaxing plenty of chances from the blades of weary New Zealand batsmen. That seemed to be part of the problem for Smith when he went out into the field on the third morning - an expectation that a favourable match situation and fatigue would conspire to do much of the work of the bowlers.

Instead, he was faced by opponents of enormous resilience and concentration and soon found his own bowling attack possessed somewhat slimmer reserves of both these qualities. The balance of the Australian pace battery in particular was exposed as faulty in England, and on this excessively flat strip of earth there was once again a clear inability to build pressure rather than simply blasting a team out.

Smith's bowling changes and field settings were generally sound, but the lack of pressure told on the energy of bowlers, fielders and captain alike. By the time Taylor and Trent Boult prolonged the innings to 624 in 153.5 overs it was the highest ever by New Zealand against Australia and Smith had been forced to post a field of a slip, third man, deep point, deep extra cover, long-off, long-on, deep midwicket, deep square leg and long leg for the increasingly spent force of Mitchell Johnson. His figures of 28-2-157-1 were the most expensive in a Test on this ground.

At innings' end, the mental fatigue and frustration of Smith's team was underlined by a moment's conjecture over whether there was time for an over before lunch, and simultaneously a lack of acknowledgement for Taylor's enormous innings - the record for a visiting Test batsman on these shores. It is Smith's job to be on top of all these things, and as predecessors will attest, it is always possible that something's going to get missed. Even so, the lack of any on-field handshakes conveyed something less than enchantment with Taylor for no apparent good reason.

When Joe Burns was fatally drawn into Tim Southee's outswinger, Smith found himself back in the middle as a batsman, taking the place of the injured Usman Khawaja. This had become the kind of scenario that could so easily have tripped up a weary batting line-up, and soon after Smith arrived it would account for David Warner. Australia two wickets down and still 19 runs in deficit was not something anyone had imagined two days ago.

So it was left to Smith to do the dirty work, building an innings that may yet be a platform for a last-day victory bid, but in the first instance had to be a salvage operation. This is not something that Smith had specialised in - before today he had never made a second-innings Test hundred. Nor was it a duty that sits comfortably with teams coached by Darren Lehmann, who has tended to prefer his teams to go down swinging.

But in a fledgling captaincy, more humble duties can often arrive. Australians lost count of the number of times Allan Border was left trying to save a match in his early years as leader, and in Clarke's first Test assignment in 2011 he needed to make a fine day-five century to save the third Test in Colombo. Even Ricky Ponting's defining innings is arguably his Old Trafford match-saver in 2005, rather than any of the countless hundreds he made in victories.

In that context, the innings that unfolded was a significant moment for Smith, easing the anxieties of team-mates and taking the match back into a zone from where Australia may still dictate terms. He was more composed than the first innings, when a wild swish followed a brief scoreless period, and used the gaps in the field and the billiard-table surface to great effect. Occasionally flexing a sore knee, Smith still ran hard and pushed on to a hundred he needed to make. When the selectors consider who should replace Khawaja, they have the added flexibility provided by the certainty Smith showed batting at No. 3 here.

Helping Smith in no small measure was Adam Voges, the most experienced WACA operator on either side yet playing his first Test at the ground. Voges was more circumspect than his captain, but also commendably neat. He too knows the wages of leadership, having inherited the Western Australia job at a low point for the state in 2012 and subsequently helped build a far stronger and more disciplined side. The joy on Voges' face when making a century in front of his family and friends was one of the more indelible images of this match.

Near the end of the day, Smith had to deal with a heavy blow to the helmet and then a knock to the arm. Each instance caused him some discomfort, the first occasion cause enough for the team doctor Peter Brukner to make his way onto the field, the second for the physio David Beakley to make an on-the-spot check. Smith can flash a grimace just as easily as a smile, but this time the latter lasted longer than the former. He will have other such days as captain, and it will help to know he fought through this one.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig