"Bradman versus England" was a famous newspaper banner at the height of The Don's hegemony. Fifty or so years later, Graham Gooch described batting against New Zealand when Sir Richard Hadlee was at his peak as "World XI at one end and Ilford 2nd XI at the other".
Both statements came to mind over the first three days of the opening Ashes Test at Edgbaston, as England played one intriguing Test match against Steven Smith and another rather different one against the rest of Australia. Thus far, Smith has 190 runs for once out, while the remainder of his team have 224 for 13.
There was a reminder, too, of how Smith's runs project his authority, as he took an evermore visible role in marshalling Australia's fielders over the formal authority of Tim Paine and his deputies Travis Head and Pat Cummins. This was not an entirely successful exercise, as England wriggled from 300 for 8 to 374 all out and a potentially match-winning advantage, as the leadership coalition hesitated to do the perennially obvious thing to remove Stuart Broad and bounce him until he had survived near enough to 60 balls. James Pattinson later explained that this episode had been a combination of the pitch's vagaries and team management's instructions not to over-attack.
"It was just how short we went. I think Patty Cummins was saying he felt like the ball was almost hitting him on the toe, that's how short he had to bowl to get it up," Pattinson said. "So I think we were trying to do it earlier, the ball wasn't getting up, and then once we figured out we had to bowl a little bit shorter and almost hit you in the toe, it probably paid off. That's something we can look at doing earlier in his innings when he comes out.
"Before that we had a message to try and bowl to the tail as we would to the top order, I think over here sometimes we've attacked too much. Broad and those type of people have scored quite quickly and taken the game away from us a little bit. They put on a good partnership but they batted quite a while as well, so we managed to stem the flow of runs but they did put on a good partnership, but I think that was the key thing for our innings."
Save for that, and the crowd-pleasing boundary exchanges between David Warner and the abundantly costumed gathering in the Hollies Stand that included the opener turning out his pockets to prove he had no sandpaper on him, the day's most critical passages did not take place until Australia went in to bat a second time. In conditions still comfortable but under plenty of pressure from the scoreboard, the crowd and England's admittedly weakened bowling attack.
Broad, Chris Woakes, Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes all showed an ability to drop swiftly onto the ideal lengths to pose questions, of a nature that were swiftly proven to be too much for Warner or Cameron Bancroft for the second time in the match. Warner, having made a conscious effort to slow his tempo, has seldom been dismissed in the manner he was - edging through to Jonny Bairstow when trying to leave Broad - and was left with some thinking to do about how he might best have an impact on the series.
"We've got to find a way to get him out" Chris Woakes on Steve Smith
Something that Warner has generally been able to be relied upon over his Test career is to make a score of some sort in at least one of every two Test innings, and this match was among his top three least productive against all comers, and his quietest ever against England. Whether the taunts of the crowd had an effect on Warner only he can say, but the passivity of his approach over the first two innings of the series helped allow England a toehold.
At the other end, Bancroft has offered a handful of shots that show how he has honed his game for Durham, but at the same time he has still demonstrated technical foibles that make him a reasonably susceptible target for England's seamers. On day one he showed good judgment of his off stump but only up to the point he fenced and edged to slip, and on day three, Bancroft was left in limbo on the crease by Moeen, very nearly bowled by an off break that turned and then bunting to short leg another that did not. Having won such a tight race to partner Warner, Bancroft finds himself under immediate pressure for his place.
That wicket brought Smith to the middle, and it was a familiar sensation from many of his innings in recent Australian summers that it felt less like a new start than a continuation of his day-one masterpiece, albeit in conditions that had now eased. Confronted by leg slips or gullies, and also a very short mid on to Moeen, Smith used the depth and width of his crease with precision, finding gaps repeatedly on the leg side and then stretching out to cover drive if anyone drifted wide. A blow to the helmet by Stokes late in the day forced a visit by the team doctor Richard Saw and an extremely GIF-able reaction from Smith, but it was just about the only time he looked ill-at-ease. Woakes was happy to concede the problem he presented to England.
"We've got to find a way to get him out," Woakes said. "On this surface in particular it's hard to force the issue as a bowler, a lot of the pace has gone out of the pitch so you almost have to build pressure, find ways to build pressure and attack at one end and hold at the other, and almost try to build pressure to make sure the batsman makes a mistake. But Steve doesn't make too many mistakes so we've got to find a way.
"The thought behind that is he hits the ball there quite a bit. He's very strong off his legs, we've set a leg side field a few times and obviously had catchers in the areas [leg slip and leg gully]. He's a good player at manipulating the field as well, it's a credit to him but it didn't affect my length in any way. I actually thought the first innings I was reasonably pleased with how I bowled at him, obviously I didn't get him out, but he didn't hurt me too much.
"Steve's a very good player, and don't get me wrong, we're trying to get him out as well, but whenever you get a new player at the crease you try to attack them as much as possible. That's when you're most vulnerable as a player, when you first get to the crease. In the first innings was saw a lot of pressure at the other end and put pressure on the other batters. We'll try to do that again, but at the same time we'll certainly be looking to get Steve out if we can, because we saw how destructive he was at the back end of the first innings."
Perhaps the most promising element of the day for Australia, aside from Smith's continuing genius, was how Usman Khawaja and Travis Head eased their ways into the series. Neither had looked completely at sea on day one before being removed by balls that seamed, and Khawaja in particular played with rare fluency belying the slowness of the pitch. His drives and flicks meant that Australia set a strong pace in the third innings to ensure they would be in the lead by the close, even if he was to be defeated by a perfectly pitched effort ball in Stokes' first over.
Head, meanwhile, showed both tightness in defence and busyness in attack, turning the strike over and finding the boundary with a pair of cut shots at Joe Root that helped prevent England from building up too dry a sequence in the final half an hour of play. Smith's domination should, in theory, allow others to prosper in his slipstream, but there will need to be more runs found among the rest of Australia's top six if full advantage is to be taken of an England side now lacking James Anderson.
Either way, the growing influence of Smith could be seen both with the bat and in the field, though Pattinson was eager to argue that there had been plenty of other players offering advice to Paine. "We've got a lot of experienced players in the team now, not just Steve," he said. "There's obviously Pat Cummins, who has played a lot of cricket. Sidds has played over 60 Test matches, so obviously with Painey he likes to get feedback off a lot of different people. That's the way we're going, we like to talk as a group and stuff like that. So I think everyone - with the experience in our team - we can talk about tactics and fields out on the ground. He's really accepting of that."
What was completely clear by the end of day three was that Smith can be the difference in this series, just as he was in Australia two years ago, provided there is enough support available from the rest of the batting order. Neither Bradman for Australia, nor Hadlee for New Zealand, could have prospered fully without the assistance of others. For the 2019 tourists to end their Ashes drought in England, Smith will have to be the focal point of a combined operation.