Smith feels the pressure under a blood-red sky

Steven Smith is feeling the pressure of the Ashes and showing it in his decision-making. Cameron Bancroft is finding his way. Usman Khawaja and David Warner are not going on from starts. Pete Handscomb does not appear to know where his next run, or his next zany technical tweak, is coming from. Mitchell Starc is some distance from his best and wickets are eluding Josh Hazlewood.

This is not, for the moment, an Australian team in great shape. It is being sustained by some outstanding displays from Nathan Lyon and Pat Cummins, with a smattering of batting contributions to cobble together just enough runs for them to defend. Just enough, that is, against an England side that for most of the first three days in Adelaide had not been able to play to a high enough standard to properly test all the aforementioned areas of Australian weakness.

That changed markedly on the third evening and the fourth afternoon, allowing England a glimmer of hope in their chase that has been turned into a far stronger prospect by innings of quality from Joe Root and Dawid Malan. The DRS miscalculations of Smith in not reviewing an lbw appeal against Alastair Cook, then mistakenly calling for adjudication against Root and Malan in the space of three balls, gave England further breathing room. History still favours a successful Australian defence of a 353-run lead, but Smith's anxiety on the fourth evening was almost as tangible as the hilarious, mocking review signals of a suddenly optimistic Barmy Army.

"We've had one and a half days we haven't been very good at," the assistant coach David Saker said. "We're still quite a young team and we're still learning. We'll only get better but we want those things to stop. To be the best team in the world, which we want to be, those things have to stop. I still think we're in front in the game, we come out well in the morning and we can still wrap this up quicker than you think and we've had a decent win. We won't brush what happened with the bat aside, we'll have a good talk about it, but we've got to get better when the ball's moving without doubt, whether it's spin or swing. It's something we sometimes fall down at."

Smith had been left with a vexing calculation upon ending England's first innings. He knew the new pink ball was likely to grow fangs in the hands of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes at night, but also that he only had four bowlers for the final stanza of back-to-back Tests. Weighing up the brief history of day/night Tests with the bowling resources available, Smith opted for the more conventional pathway. Anderson and Woakes duly made early incisions that were then expertly exploited on the fourth afternoon. While much attention has been lavished on Smith's decision not to enforce the follow-on, more damaging was the failure of the middle order to consolidate and build a larger lead when play resumed in daylight.

A rush of wickets under lights is more or less expected in day/night Tests, and doubtless something Smith factored into his thinking. But another collapse in broad daylight rather underlined how this is still a team with a questionable record and a loose grasp of the consistency required to be an international force. While familiarity with home conditions invariably helps, that only does a part of the job.

Smith himself reflected before the match: "I think it's just about ensuring we do the basics well here in Australia. It's a bit different to a lot of the overseas tours, we've grown up on these wickets and know them a lot better, so making sure we're adapting accordingly to whatever the wicket throws up, whatever England's plans throw up, and ensuring we're on from ball one. Hopefully we can get on top of the game early and take some momentum from the last game as well."

Australia did start this match well, largely because England failed at their first opportunity to test out areas of batting vulnerability. Bowling too short and not challenging the Australian top order to play off the front foot after sending Smith's men in to bat, they allowed Warner, Khawaja and the captain to set a platform for Shaun Marsh and Tim Paine to capitalise upon. Then, despite evading much of the second night session of the match due to rain, their top order surrendered meekly to Lyon and company on day three.

But the following rush of Australian wickets was consistent with the recent story of a team that has struggled to put sequences of unrelenting sessions together, while perhaps also reflecting a level of complacency about the opponents they were facing. Certainly Paine and Marsh would not have offered the sorts of shots they did in the third innings had Australia not been already leading by more than 300 runs at the time, and that against an England side with more batting problems than most.

Nevertheless, those missteps meant that Smith and his bowlers were sentenced to an equation that neatly placed the first and potential second new balls to be used without need for the Adelaide floodlights, a major advantage for any team batting in these conditions. For a time, Cook and Mark Stoneman took full advantage, particularly when Starc persisted in hoping for away swing from the line of leg stump and found none. Lyon's ascendancy in this series was maintained to defeat Cook, before Stoneman and James Vince offered looseness outside the off stump.

Cummins, in his first home Test series, has been a constant source of trouble for England, repeatedly answering Smith's call to claim key wickets. His defeat of Malan with pace, length and angle around the wicket in the closing overs of the evening once again kept the Australians a fraction ahead of the game, but still left England with a chance they could not have dreamed of having after day two of the match. Australia now require Lyon, Cummins or another member of the attack to stand up against Root in particular, who for his part is in position to press for the most remarkable of victories.

Should Root get that far, the pressure for a winning result against England will be compounded upon Smith and the rest, while the roars of the Barmy Army will only grow louder. This, then, is a mediocre Australian side that has stumbled within sight of a 2-0 series lead. The measure of their character - and potential for further growth - will be in the capacity to pick themselves up from here.