Australia had been in deep trouble, losing 5-23 after lunch as familiar foe Stuart Broad (5-86) and Chris Woakes (3-58) ran hot in the absence of an injured James Anderson and England reduced them to 8-122.
Smith, however, was immovable amid the carnage and just as he seemed destined to run out of partners he found assistance from an unlikely offsider in Peter Siddle (44). Preferred over Josh Hazlewood as the third seamer by selectors, the veteran Victorian repaid them with the bat as opposed to ball on the first day in a rearguard stand of 88 that was crucial as Smith steered Australia to an unlikely total of 284.
“I’m sort of lost for words at the moment,” Smith said. “I’m just really proud that I was able to help pull the team out of a little bit of trouble. Obviously England bowled exceptionally well in the first two sessions and it was hard work out there. I’m just proud that I was able to dig in and fight through the difficult periods and get ourselves to a competitive total.”
Even the Edgbaston crowd, who waved pieces of yellow sandpaper in the Hollies Stand when David Warner and Cameron Bancroft fell cheaply, acknowledged one of Smith’s greatest performances, with as much cheering as booing when he completed his hundred and was later clapped off the ground by teammates.
England openers Jason Roy and Rory Burns survived a nervous two overs with the bat to close out the first day 0-3.
But far from the first time, Smith was the undisputed star of the show. He transfixed English commentators with his quirkiness and bewitched their players with his sheer quality. Such is the high standard he sets himself, he castigated himself repeatedly simply for being unable to find the gap between fielders – but found plenty.
It was over the top of them, though, that he raced towards the milestone mark. He was 15 runs short of three figures when Siddle’s support act finally drew to a close, caught smartly by Jos Buttler at short leg when he got an inside edge against Moeen Ali.
He proceeded to thrash a huge six off the off-spinner to reach 98, but then took a single to leave Lyon having to face the final two balls of Moeen’s over as he sat on 99.
The ever reliable Australia No.11 blocked them out, though, and Smith completed his remarkable comeback with a four through the covers off the bowling of Stokes four balls later. As the lights came on he then put the foot down against a tired attack missing Anderson, who bowled only four overs before heading off for a scan on a calf issue that looms as a major blow for England’s overall Ashes hopes.
“I thought Peter Siddle did a magnificent job, that partnership we were able to form and Nathan Lyon as well, he was magnificent,” Smith said. “He actually said to me ‘That’s the most nervous I’ve ever been out in the middle batting’ so to be able to get to my hundred and give him a really big hug and let all my emotions out, that was really special.”
While Smith was brilliant, the two other returning players from the Cape Town scandal made less successful comebacks, both removed by Broad inside the first 40 minutes, Warner lasting only 14 balls for his two and Bancroft making eight.
The openers were predictably booed heavily by many of the 25,000 in attendance as they walked out to the middle together for the first time since Newlands in March last year.
It didn’t take long for the crowd to get just what they wanted.
Warner was left to rue his call not to review the decision of umpire Aleem Dar to give him out lbw to Broad in the fourth over of the day. The ball-tracking technology indicated the ball was missing down leg stump, with Warner having perhaps been mistaken because he was taking guard so far out of his crease. While the left-hander should have asked the question, it was one of a series of blunders made by match officials on Thursday.
Broad would have had Warner out first ball had England reviewed when Dar turned down their shout claiming he had feathered the ball down leg side to Jonny Bairstow. There had been a noise and Ultra Edge showed there had been a nick, even if slight.
There was no doubt about the edge to England captain Joe Root that sent Bancroft packing soon after as he became Broad’s second victim.
Travis Head (35) steadied the ship with Smith until soon after lunch when the South Australian was bamboozled by Woakes and then Matthew Wade (1), captain Tim Paine (5), James Pattinson (0) and Pat Cummins (5) all came and went quickly.
At that stage Australia seemed highly unlikely to reach 150, let alone 200 or 250, but Smith had other ideas.
England were satisfied nonetheless with their day’s work and how the match is positioned.
“The way Steve Smith played showed that runs can be got on that pitch,” Broad said. “We obviously wanted to bowl Australia out for much less but Smith and Siddle played beautifully. We’re pretty happy. We’ll take bowling Australia out for under 300 for sure, a man down.”
Chris Barrett is Sports Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.