Australia v England, 3rd Test, Perth, 1st day December 13, 2013

Mature innings that means something from Smith

Steve Smith's innings at the WACA was patient and significant, and showed how far he has come.

It's one thing to score a Test hundred in a dead rubber, quite another to do it when your side is in a bind with a series win on the line. An Ashes win.

The centuries scored by Steven Smith and Shane Watson at The Oval in August were meaningful for the individuals, but not for the team. Big runs early in this home campaign against England, not after the Urn has been regained, that is what Australia needed from Smith and Watson. So far one has delivered, one has not.

Australia came to Perth 2-0 up and confident, but aware that an England victory could undo all their good work. When Australia lost their third wicket before lunch and Smith walked to the crease, the pressure was immense. Chris Rogers had run himself out. Michael Clarke had been caught attacking the spinner.

Watson had edged a ball he should have left. Leave on length - that's the old WACA cliché. At slip, Graeme Swann caught the ball above his head; Watson's stumps were not in danger from that Stuart Broad delivery.

Smith walked to the crease with an awful first-class record at the WACA, averaging 17.20 in six games.

"My patience now has changed a bit. Going out there, it's pretty key to watch the ball closely and leave well early," Smith said on Tuesday when asked about how he would approach such an unsuccessful venue. "That's going to be part of my game this week."

When Smith reached his century with a boundary pulled through midwicket, the graphics said it all. Eighty of his runs had come on the leg side, from muscular pulls when the bowlers dropped short, as they did often, and flicks off the pads when they strayed in length. Only 20 had come through the off side. He chose his strokes well. The pitch map was just as revealing; a big cluster of good-length balls outside off, nearly all of them dots. This was an innings of patience.

His century at The Oval was brought up with a six down the ground; his hundred at the WACA began with one. It took until his 16th ball to get off the mark, a lofted drive over long-on that was struck firmly and safely with a straight bat. As he would for the rest of the day, he respected the balls that would cause him danger, and acted decisively against those that would not.

Smith faced 147 dot balls. The Steven Smith of two or three years ago did not have that kind of patience. That is precisely why the WACA led him astray. He was the type of player commentators say "likes to feel bat on ball". Not anymore. Against the fast bowlers, he was so resolute that his only scoring shots through the off side came when they dropped short or extremely wide. He more or less refused to drive them through cover or mid-off.

At times he showed he was human. On 85, he played the one shot batting coaches say you should forget about at the WACA - the drive with a bat angled at 45 degrees. He was lucky he missed, smiled, and chastised himself. He edged just short of slip on 92. But to bat for two sessions in Perth's extreme heat and not let your brain wander, you'd need to be super-human. After reaching his hundred, as stumps approached, he was again watching and leaving.

Before today, there were casual Australian fans who viewed him as lucky to be in the side, a bits-and-pieces player promoted too early. That is patently not the case.

It was revealing of Smith's character, for as fidgety at he appears at the crease, as awkward as some of his limited-overs strokes look, he is the kind of cricketer who learns. He takes things in - usually. After stumps, he said he had not heard a chirp when he came out to bat, when an England player seemed to say that Smith was "one game away" from being dropped. Certainly, he had failed in Brisbane and Adelaide, but No. 5 must now be his for some time.

He is Australia's third-highest Test run scorer in 2013, behind Clarke and Warner, and the only Australian besides Clarke averaging over 40 this year (leaving aside Michael Hussey's one Test in the first week of January). Before today, there were casual Australian fans who viewed him as lucky to be in the side, a bits-and-pieces player promoted too early and favoured over others more deserving. That is patently not the case.

Smith and Brad Haddin, Australia's saviour throughout this series, set the team back on course after their early troubles. That there were early troubles again was a worry. So far in this series, Australia have been 6 for 132, 4 for 174 and 5 for 143 in their first innings. Three of the top six - George Bailey, Rogers and Watson - are averaging under 25 in the series. They are fortunate the runs are coming from elsewhere, and not from England.

Australia entered this match with an unchanged side for the third consecutive Test, the first time that had happened since the 2006-07 Ashes. It is a rare luxury, and while they keep winning, the selectors will maintain the status quo. They were lucky that Smith stood up at the WACA. His innings was patient, mature and significant.

It was a hundred that meant something, not like those dead-rubber tons at The Oval. Smith is 24, and he delivered when it counted. Watson is 32, and he has not - yet. He could learn from his junior colleague.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here