Rivals and team-mates alike were left in awe of Steve Smith after the world’s top-ranked Test batsman hit new heights in the third Ashes match against England at the WACA Ground on Saturday.
The Australian captain reached his highest Test score yet with his second double-century, passed 1,000 Test runs for the year and also notched his fastest Test century in an innings that appeared to shatter England’s resolve.
At stumps, Smith was on 229 not out, having faced 390 balls, hitting 28 fours and one six as his stellar year continued.
It was his second century of the series and he didn’t offer a single chance throughout.
The closest England came to seeing the back of the star right-hander were two unsuccessful third-umpire reviews after having leg before wicket appeals turned down.
English assistant coach Paul Farbrace said their best plans for the unorthodox Smith weren’t troubling him.
“Every team will talk about where to bowl to him,” he said.
“But the way he is playing at the moment, he gets into some awkward positions but he gets his head back into the ball and keeps the bat face open.
“He hits the ball from what seems likes strange positions, but he hits the middle of the bat on a consistent basis.
“We’ve tried all sorts, we’ve thought about our plans to him for some time, but we’ve come up against a player in the form of his life playing absolutely fantastically.”
Aged 28, Smith already has 22 centuries to his name from 107 Test knocks.
Only Don Bradman (58 innings) and Sunil Gavaskar (101 innings) have reached 22 Test centuries in fewer innings.
His current Test batting average is also second only to the legendary Bradman.
Smith and recalled all-rounder Mitchell Marsh carried the home side past the English first innings total Saturday with an unbroken 301-run fifth-wicket partnership.
Resuming on 92 at the start of play, Smith wasted little time raising century, reaching the mark from 138 balls — his fastest Test century in terms of balls faced.
Smith reached 200 by working Moeen Ali through mid-wicket for another single, having faced 301 balls.
Marsh said Smith had an aura about him and he had sympathy for England’s predicament.
“I have felt what it’s like, captained against him when he played for New South Wales a couple of months ago,” he said.
“You come up with all these plans and none of them seem to work.
“He is a special player.”
Michael Vaughan believes the lack of variety in England’s bowling attack is contributing to their downfall in Australia.
The tourists are on the brink of relinquishing the Ashes with two Tests remaining after managing to take only one wicket on the third day at the WACA.
Steve Smith and Mitch Marsh, with a career-best 229 and 181 respectively in an unbroken fifth-wicket stand of 301, built a lead of 146 by guiding Australia to 549 for four at the close.
And former England skipper Vaughan says the current bowlers are not suited to thrive in Australian conditions.
“It is a disastrous day. I think today showed we have no swing, no seam, no pace or no spin,” Vaughan told BT Sport.
“How are you going to get wickets? You are basically relying on an Australian batting line-up getting bored, chipping one in the air, but you can see in their eyes that they are not going to do that.
— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) December 16, 2017
“They are desperate to get the Ashes back and you have to say today is the day, in my opinion, that the Ashes will be staying in Australia.”
Another ex-England captain, Kevin Pietersen, was also scathing of England’s bowling to Marsh, who was playing his first Test back in Australia whites.
He tweeted: “Dear Mitch Marsh, we’d like to wish you a warm welcome back to international cricket with some half volleys & throw downs with the new ball. Kind regards, England bowlers!”
Vaughan believes only rain can now prevent Joe Root’s side from losing the Ashes in Perth.
“Looking at the game situation, England will probably have to bat four and a half sessions to try and save the Test match and keep the Ashes alive,” Vaughan said.
“It is a pitch that looks pretty good, those cracks will widen, but I do think England will need a bit of help from the Gods above, I really do.”
— ICC (@ICC) December 16, 2017
Assistant coach Paul Farbrace refused to criticise England’s bowlers despite seeing Steve Smith and Mitch Marsh pile on the runs for Australia on the third day of the third Ashes Test at the WACA.
The tourists managed just one wicket all day as Smith and Marsh, with a career-best 229 and 181 respectively, shared an unbroken fifth-wicket partnership of 301.
Australia finished the day on 549 for four in reply to England’s 403, leading by 146, and in a strong position to regain the Ashes with two Tests still remaining.
But Farbrace felt England’s bowlers did all they could, telling Sky Sports: “We have had a tough day.
“They played exceptionally well. Smith has played well, as he has done all series.
“You can look back at how your bowlers bowl. We think we have worked really hard as a bowling group and toiled away really well.
“We haven’t got the extra pace that the Australians have got and we don’t have magical spin. We have what we have. We knew that coming into the series.
“We knew there were going to be times where it was going to be tough for our bowlers and today has proved to be one of those days.
“I thought our body language was pretty good. We stuck at it pretty well. I think watching it from side on, we worked hard and got stuck in.”
Australia are now overwhelming favourites to recapture the urn over the next two days.
But Farbrace is confident England can still save the match and keep the series alive.
“Until the Test match finishes you have to believe you can get something from it,” he said.
“We came into this game believing we could get something out of it and keep the series alive going into the next game. There is nothing to suggest that we can’t still do that.
“Yes, it is going to be hard but that is what it is. It is Test cricket, tough cricket, and you have got to get stuck in.”