Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig
How, over the 12 months in which he was banned from representing Australia, might Steven Smith have imagined making his return to Test cricket?
How about this? A raucously hostile English crowd, a dicey pitch, a day one batting collapse, a rearguard century as tough as it was masterful, a cover drive off Ben Stokes to get there, a foothold in the game, and adulation for one of the greatest innings ever played.
Amid all the isolation, the ridicule, the lonely batting sessions, the community service and the club games for Sutherland, that would have sounded pretty good. In fact it might have been the stuff of Smith's dreams, or the script of a movie capturing the disgrace, recovery and redemption of an elite athlete. It is a dream, or a film pitch, no longer.
On day one of the 2019 Ashes, Smith played an innings as good as any in his career, possibly better. He played an innings as valuable as any in his career, possibly better. And he played an innings more cathartic to Smith and Australia than any in his career.
Wiggling, twitching and light sabre leaving in a fashion that felt even more exaggerated than he did before the ban, Smith blunted everything England, the pitch and the weather could hurl at him. In the course of doing so he also caused a perceptible change in the Edgbaston crowd's response - booing overshadowed if never completely drowned out by ever more generous applause.
A lone hand first innings century, this was a kind of performance only seldom seen in Australian Test history - a couple spring to mind. In 1981, Kim Hughes fashioned an even 100 out of 198 against the West Indies on a difficult MCG pitch, getting to the milestone with nine wickets down. And in 1997, Steve Waugh battled to 108 out of 235 against England at Old Trafford on a surface where seam and swing were available in generous quantities more or less all day. Both knocks set up Australian victories and are still spoken about, decades later, but neither had quite the subtext of this one.
For almost three weeks now, Smith has been driving Australia's assistant coaches to distraction with his ravenous appetite for net sessions and throw downs. He has hit thousands of balls, most of them delivered by the batting coach Graeme Hick, indoors and outdoors, morning and evening, optional sessions and mandatory, from Southampton to Birmingham. Asked whether the coaches effectively drew straws for who would throw to Smith, Justin Langer had laughed.
"Yep. Yep pretty much," he said. "That's why I was out on my knees before, because he didn't have that long a net today. It's almost when he comes out, you're down on your knees going 'oh thank you, thank you' because he loves hitting balls, which means you've got to throw a lot of balls. Graeme Hick works very hard..."
The obsession and compulsion of Smith's preparation ran alongside his litany of superstitions and routines, all compiled over the years to ensure he feels as comfortable and normal as possible at the batting crease. These extend from the order in which he puts on pads, gloves and helmet, to the taping of his shoelaces to his socks to ensure he does not see them when he looks down at has bat tapping by his right shoe. They help Smith to feel cocooned at the crease, and he most certainly needed that feeling for the scenario that confronted him at 17 for 2 in the eighth over.
In the hands of Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes, the ball was zipping, seaming and bouncing. Too much for David Warner, albeit via an erroneous lbw decision, too much for Cameron Bancroft. There was talk of a Newlands scandal hat-trick of sorts for Broad, but Smith responded with a broad bat and cool judgment of what to play and leave from the very earliest stages of his innings.
A few deliveries beat the bat, and Smith soon lost Usman Khawaja's companionship, but overall the impression was of a batsman who, after all that had taken place, still had the measure of the England attack as he had done in Australia two years ago. This was not in Australia, however, nor with a Kookaburra ball travelling gun barrel straight for most of its journeys. The degree of difficulty was undoubtedly far higher. This was true even when considering how James Anderson withdrew from the attack with a recurrence of calf trouble after only four overs, not delivering a single ball to Smith all day.
For a period either side of lunch, Smith was able to play in the slipstream of a fluent Travis Head, playing his first Ashes innings with some panache, until a seamer from Woakes found the left-hander lbw. That signalled another rush of wickets, as Matthew Wade, Tim Paine, James Pattinson and Pat Cummins cobbled just 11 runs between them. Smith came close to being part of the procession, successfully reviewing an lbw appeal when he shouldered arms and saw that the ball had not seamed back quite enough to hit the stumps. But at 122 for 8, it did not appear as though this would matter all that much.
Walking to the wicket, though, was Peter Siddle, a cricketer with his own story of second chances to tell. He had been surplus to requirements for most of the journey here in 2015, and his selection for the opening Test demonstrated how far Australian thinking had evolved since then. In England this year, Siddle has been making himself useful to Essex with the bat as well as the ball, averaging 32 in the County Championship. Not having to deal with Anderson, who has dismissed him 11 times in Tests, Siddle was almost as fluent as Smith in adding 88 precious runs.
"I was just telling him to watch the ball and to keep watching it really hard and play his natural game," Smith said of Siddle. "When they over pitched he drove a few balls really nicely, when they bowled short he was getting underneath it the majority of the time. He had a really good, strong defence which is what you need on a wicket which is doing a bit. His defence was magnificent.
"He was willing to get beaten every now and again and just play the line of the ball. He did that beautifully. It's great to see Sidds back. He's very experienced, he's played a lot of cricket over here and he's a bowler that is similar to Woakes who hits the stumps a lot, maybe a little bit shorter and is able to hit the stumps from a shorter length. It's going to be crucial on this wicket and I think it's a wicket that will really suit him."
When Siddle exited, Smith was still 14 runs from a century, and he knew from recent experience here in the World Cup semi-final that it was eminently plausible he may be left short of the mark. But Nathan Lyon was able to endure in his company, to a point that Smith was able to go to three figures by following a thumping six off Moeen Ali with a sweet cover drive off Stokes to return to the ranks of Test century makers. He celebrated in something of a daze, the enormity of the occasion and the achievement taking time to soak in. The lower order help was serendipitous in itself, for so many of those extra batting sessions for Smith have taken place alongside similar additional nets for the lower order, the better to eke out every last available run for the cause.
Once he had composed himself, Smith launched into a final third of the innings that was often brutal, consigning Joe Root to a task that was less a case of setting fields as ordering his men to disperse as widely as possible - all of them retreating to the boundary by the end. Smith was utterly cocooned in the aforementioned zone, complete with all its many, ever more pronounced fidgets, including one instance of self-reproach when he failed to get a tennis slog past cover. The ticks and twitches eased a little towards the end, but only slightly.
When finally Broad found a way through, Smith sprinted off the field, almost as though he was seeking to reach the sanctuary of his teammates before another round of booing could engulf him. But there was rather more applause for a day that, in Smith's own words, defied his ability to describe them. He is back alright, and Australia could not be more grateful.
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