Usman Khawaja, the other experienced batsmen who might have provided leadership against England’s skilled seam and swing attack on a grippy, tricky pitch, flattered to deceive. Tim Paine, the captain, was out playing the worst shot of the day. Batsman after batsman became tangled in their footwork against some superbly intelligent bowling from Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes.
Not Smith, whose footwork creates its own orthodoxies as he goes along. He improvised some odd-looking slogs as he batted with the tail, but the lasting image of this innings was the straight, dead bat he offered in defence in his first two hours at the crease. He was not just batting, but giving his teammates a masterclass in how to bat. Another form of leadership.
Smith aside, it was a dismal day for the Australians, who made even more errors than the comically mistake-prone umpires. They would surely not have reached 150 had Jimmy Anderson not broken down with a calf injury after four overs. Even with this advantage, however, Australia could not capitalise. Broad, bowling fuller than usual, was at his very best, surgically peeling back the tourists’ deficiencies and exposing them to view.
But to say ‘Smith aside’ is to think of India without Virat Kohli or New Zealand without Kane Williamson. Both of those talisman individuals are also captains, following the cricket tradition of handing the captaincy to the best batsman. It’s also the Australian tradition, and continued under Smith until March 2018. Who knows, it may yet resume in the future.
For now, though, Smith has done the game two services. He produced an innings that he will surely rank among the best of his 24 Test centuries and accounted for more than half of his team’s runs. For months he had waited for this moment, and the beaming smile on his face as he celebrated three figures hinted at a very private story. He also refloated an Australian voyage that had been sinking before it even got out of harbour. Smith might not sleep in the captain’s cabin, but he left no doubt about who is in charge.