England's Plan B goes back on the shelf as Steven Smith misses a straight one

For the first time in England, Test cricket was played on September 13. Not for the first time, Steven Smith spent much of it going about his business - the business of scoring a truckload of runs. As his tally for the series ticked steadily towards record-breaking territory, it looked like England would have to be satisfied with working to the back-up plan that has become their default: get rid of the blokes who aren't SPD Smith.

"There's another 10 players in the team, who you need to focus on as well. He's obviously a world-class player but they've got some other good players in there and you don't want to take your attention off them." That was Chris Woakes, talking to ESPNcricinfo before the second Test. Crushed like garbage in the compactor between Smith's twin hundreds at Edgbaston, and with memories of his 687 runs in 2017-18 still smarting, England had come up with a coping mechanism of sorts.

That briefly changed when Jofra Archer produced a reminder that Smith was a flesh-and-blood mortal like the rest of us by felling him at Lord's, although it was still technically the same blueprint: you don't have to dismiss Smith if he's been removed from the equation due to concussion.

Even then, Archer played down any psychological hold he might have established, speaking after the miraculous recovery to beat a Smith-less Australia at Headingley. "If we don't get him out there's 10 other people we can get out and if he's stranded on 40 that's not helping his team too much to be honest," he said. "We all know he's a world-class batter and has the right temperament for Test cricket but he can't do it all himself."

Erm, about that, Jofra. To be fair, Marnus Labuschagne has proven himself an able deputy/mini-me, but this Ashes has felt a little like England taking on a one-man army - at least as far as the batting is concerned.

"C'mon Jofra, today's the day!" That was the call when Smith walked out to bat during the morning session on day two at The Oval, after Archer had performed the formalities of seeing off Australia's openers. The same fellow was regularly on his feet to vigorously clap on England in their efforts to shift the immovable object early - though given it was December 2017 the last time Smith failed to reach 50 in an Ashes innings, he was understandably something of a lone voice.

It turned out today wasn't the day for that. But there was ultimately enough seam-and-swing hi-jinx to send this final Test off in an entertainingly unexpected direction.

Conditions this late into the English season often provide a bit of grease for the wheels, as demonstrated by Mitchell Marsh scooping a maiden Test five-for. While Archer had cranked up his speeds during his opening spell, hitting 92mph and keeping both Smith and Labuschagne on their guard during a stand of 69, it was the spark provided by Curran, making his first appearance of the series, that saw the Australia innings, in the immortal words of the Fresh Prince, "flipped turned upside down".

"We all know he's a world-class batter and has the right temperament for Test cricket but he can't do it all himself.' Erm, about that, Jofra ..."

With Labuschagne extracted by Archer's pace, England looked like they would be happy enough to whittle through the other men in the card while limiting the collateral damage entailed by Smith continuing to bat. The most ruffled he had looked during the afternoon was when Jonny Bairstow flirted with the Law around fake fielding to leave Smith sprawling in the dirt thinking he had to dive for his ground in order to avoid a run-out.

However, just as on the previous evening, when Marsh managed to coax some life out of the old ball, England began to find lateral movement in the overs after tea. With Archer concentrating on hitting the middle of the pitch, Australia and Smith found themselves in a bind. Instead of a sleepy session of run accumulation under milky blue skies, the crowd suddenly awoke to the possibility that this innings might not necessarily proceed to the usual script.

The first roar came when Marsh ended a tentative innings by top-edging to fine leg. An even greater cheer was stifled moments later, as Curran induced an error from Smith, only for a wild slash to be put down by the leaping Root at slip. The introduction of England's left-armer during the morning had posed new questions for Smith, ones to which he found a typically idiosyncratic answer - playing out one over almost exclusively by padding up - and here was another opportunity to wonder what might have been had Curran found a spot in the XI earlier.

"Sam Curran generated some nice swing and bowled a pretty good spell," Smith said. "When the left-armers do it well, they bring the ball back into the right-handers and it's kind of an unnatural angle. You don't see it very often, there's only a handful of people that do it around the world. He used the swing when he had it and held it the other way and let it go across you. He bowled pretty well and got some rewards."

As Smith hunkered down, seeing out 19 dot balls either side of the drop, Curran's waspish line accounted for Tim Paine and Pat Cummins, and suddenly at 166 for 7 England were soaringly in the ascendant. All that stood in the way were Smith and Peter Siddle, just as at Edgbaston when the series had seemingly started so well.

Could England remove Siddle this time? There'd be no getting Smith, of course, but England had reconciled themselves to that. He produced one outrageous shot to Archer, opening the face to steer deliberately through the slips, before playing and missing. "He just doesn't edge it, does he?" came a dispirited observation from near the press seats.

And then it happened. England have tried to get Smith nicking off, they've tried to bowl straight for lbw, they've tried to set a trap for him at leg slip. They've gone right through their thoroughly Smudged playbook from front to back over the last two Ashes, before finally deciding it's not worth the bother. But there it was - Chris Woakes bowled one at the stumps, and Steven Smith missed it. The exception that proves the rule? Maybe. But it might also be the exception that wins England the Test.