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Player of the Match
Player of the Match

Steve Smith double-century pushes England to the brink once again

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Smith admits he 'had some luck' reaching 211 (1:32)

Steve Smith continued his superb form with his third century of the series on his return to the side after missing the 3rd Test in Leeds with concussion. (1:32)

England 23 for 1 trail Australia 497 for 8 (Smith 211, Labuschagne 67) by 474 runs

For about two overs on the second day at Old Trafford, Steven Smith looked fallible as he resumed his comeback innings after yesterday's preamble half-century. Stuart Broad found his edge with his first ball of the day, then induced that rarest of aberrations, a waft outside off from his second.

Moments later, it appeared that Smith's neurotic focus had found the root of his discomfort - a rogue van's windscreen, visible through the slenderest of gaps in a gate behind the bowler's arm, and winking at him with unfathomable persistence, much as the North Star might after one too many disco biscuits.

But even after a towel had been lodged under the wipers to block out the glare, Smith was unable to settle immediately, and three balls into Jofra Archer's first over of the day, he pumped a low full toss at a catchable height through the bowler's outstretched fingers and away to the boundary for four. A final, flighty fence past leg stump followed. And there and then, England knew, deep in their souls, that their window of opportunity had clanged shut.

Fidget, shuffle, nudge, smack. Rinse. Repeat. Back and across, coiled like a pinball launcher, way outside off if needs be, to clip a perfectly decent ball off the hip, or to pongo onto the front foot for another freakishly emphatic drive, bat pointing to the precise patch of grass that he had targeted, rubbing in his genius while simply completing the arc of his stroke.

For the remainder of his 263-ball, 497-minute stay, Smith batted as if he had never been away - which, but for that delivery from Archer at Lord's, he might indeed never have been. Once again, he encountered an opposition that ran out of plans and patience in equal measure, as he found sufficient support from, first, Tim Paine and then Mitchell Starc to leave England praying for more rain to assist the series-extending draw that is surely now the limit of their ambitions.

By the time he eventually fell for 211, reverse-sweeping the part-time spin of Joe Root (having frogmarched England's frontline bowlers to the brink of that inevitable declaration), Smith had racked up a nonsensical haul of 589 runs in four innings, at an average of 147.25 that would have been closer to 200 but for his brave but unwise decision to resume that Lord's knock while displaying the early signs of concussion.

And by the close, the ease of Smith's own progress had been put into stark perspective by the agonised extraction of England's own erstwhile No.4, Joe Denly. Promoted to open due to Jason Roy's clear unsuitability for the task, Denly endured for 23 balls and four sketchily gathered runs, before stabbing Pat Cummins into the midriff of Matthew Wade at short leg, who snaffled the rebound brilliantly in one hand, diving to his right.

The difference between Australia's focus and England's was as visible in that final half-an-hour with the ball as it had been for so long with Smith's bat. Starc, armed with the new ball after stewing on the sidelines for three Tests, looked as "cherry-ripe" as Archer in particular has looked fatigued in this contest, while his fellow quicks, Josh Hazlewood and Cummins, were no less eager to show what can yet be achieved on this surface.

But it was the energy in the field was the most palpable difference. For if England could be excused for being blown off-track by the howling gales of the first truncated day, today's (largely) blue skies robbed them of any mitigation. They needed to be at their best on a pivotal day of the series, but they were by and large as poor as they've been all summer.

Smith's first century of the day, his third of the series, was a formality - ushered through with a misfield at square leg, and celebrated with a pointed wave of the bat that doubled as a "hello, I'm back". It was his fifth in his last eight innings against England, his 11th in Ashes cricket, and his 26th in 67 Tests all told. Comparisons with Don Bradman have long been sacrilege in Test cricket, but the relentless weight of these numbers are starting to scotch all complaints.

There was, however, one moment that stood head and shoulders above all England's other errors. Jack Leach has had a storied summer - that 92 as a nightwatchman at Lord's, that most glorious of 1 not outs at Headingley last week. And with the ball, all things considered, he was probably second only to the toiling Broad as England's most probing option of the day.

But when, with Smith on 118 and showing another fleeting glimpse of mortality against his relative kryptonite of left-arm spin, Leach found the edge of his bat with a flighted, dipping, ripping delivery that sent every data analyst in the game into raptures, the moment was immediately lost as replays showed that he had overstepped by a good half an inch.

A spinner's no-ball is one of cricket's unforgivable sins, and traumatically for Leach it was only his 13th out of more than 15,000 in his career. But what a delivery to serve one up on. Smith turned on his heel, marching back to resume his innings through a phalanx of crestfallen fielders, who were immediately torn a strip by a livid Joe Root, desperately trying to lift some flat-lining standards. But once again, that window of opportunity was already shut.

The absence of Smith, after all, would have meant the presence of another not-Smith - but even the less impossible task of making dents in the rest of the batting order proved to be beyond England, at least at the first grasp. Earlier in the day, Matthew Wade had gifted his wicket with a foul slog to mid-on, where Root clung onto a swirling chance that left him white with relief, but when the under-pressure Tim Paine arrived to replace him, the equally under-pressure Roy dropped a shocker at second slip, the ball barely hitting the heel of his palm before plopping to the turf to leave Broad, the bowler, apoplectic.

Paine is without a first-class century in 12 years, and is increasingly lacking in mandate as Australia captain now that Smith, for all his sins, is so clearly restored as the team's front-man. His removal for 9 would have left him with a highest score of 34 in seven innings. But instead he found the resolve to grind through to a cathartic half-century, albeit that he required another let-off to get there, as Sam Curran - briefly on the field for Ben Stokes - dropped a low pull at mid-on on 49 as Archer bent his back in the best spell of his wicketless innings.

Paine didn't last much longer - he nicked a fine legcutter from Craig Overton's first ball after tea to depart for 56 - but his presence had augmented Smith's dominance of a stand of 145, and though Pat Cummins didn't linger long, Starc's eagerness to get involved in the series manifested itself in the ideal tailender's innings.

His 54 from 58 balls included seven fours and two sixes, but began as a keen supporting role, just 6 runs from 23 until Smith's double-century gave him licence to unleash the long handle. Broad was hacked for four fours in a row to kickstart a helter-skelter finale that might have carried on to the close against a despondent attack, had Paine not waved them in with half-an-hour of the day to go.

By then, of course, Smith was gone - an event so rare that it would have justified on of the Don's bespoke "He's Out!" billboards, had the Manchester Evening News deemed it worthy to publish a special edition. His nudge behind square off Broad pushed him ever further into into the elite of Ashes combatants, with only the Don himself (EIGHT!) and Wally Hammond (4) having recorded more double-hundreds in the game's oldest rivalry.

Either way, his series tally is 589 runs from four innings, one of which was effectively sawn off by concussion. And now, after this latest masterclass, the only dizziness on display is that being induced by the vertigo of his statistics, and the bewilderment of an England opposition that must now be believing that Headingley was a fever-dream after all.

England 4th innings Partnerships

WktRunsPlayers
1st0JL DenlyRJ Burns
2nd0JL DenlyJE Root
3rd66JL DenlyJJ Roy
4th8JL DenlyBA Stokes
5th19JL DenlyJM Bairstow
6th45JM BairstowJC Buttler
7th34JC ButtlerC Overton
8th1C OvertonJC Archer
9th23MJ LeachC Overton
10th1SCJ BroadC Overton