Australia had a year without Steve Smith. They tried Peter Handscomb, then Mitchell Marsh, then Shaun Marsh, then Nathan Lyon, and finally Marnus Labuschagne at No. 4 in Test cricket. Between them, they scored 238 runs at 14.87, with one half-century, and these aren’t guys that Australia found at random bus stops. You can talk about Glenn Maxwell, you can talk about Joe Burns, you can talk about other players, but every one of those selections were justifiable even if they could be reasonably disagreed with (apart from Lyon, because he was a nightwatchman).
They just couldn’t be Steve Smith.
By any measure, he is the best Test batsman in the world. There’s no way you can cut the deck and come up with a different result. And it’s never more obvious than when Australia faces challenging conditions in different countries. His most recent innings in international cricket was also at Edgbaston, when he alone was able to repel the England attack for long enough to give Australia even a small chance of winning.
He performed well in the World Cup, but because he normally came in at No. 4 in a team which had the best performing openers, he never scored THAT hundred. The hundred that people would refer to as THAT hundred for the rest of their lives.
He did yesterday.
There is a decent case for calling it the best Ashes innings by an Australian batsman in the 21st century. Edgbaston has been the Achilles heel of multiple, though not all, Australian attempts to win the Ashes in this century. England’s players have wanted to start the Ashes at that ground for years. The crowd is the closest thing that England has to the Gabba. This time, they finally got their wish again.
They received the crowd they wanted, they received the pitch they wanted, and at 8-122, they had the score they wanted. Only Smith’s presence, James Anderson’s injury and their own batting flaws would have given them pause for thought, and they won the Test in 2015 despite having those last two problems. Smith was the primary problem.
The secondary problem was Peter Siddle. Smith protected him at the start but then decided it wasn’t necessary as he became more and more assured against other English bowlers not named Anderson, even Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes, who bowled so well on day one. Moeen Ali eventually got him, but not until he had helped Smith give Australia’s total the veneer of respectability that 200 brings and the chance to be in a better position to enter the T20 mode that he had to live in so often during the ban.
When Smith was done, Australia had 284 and the better of their first day with Smith back in the team.