Perth Five-fer: Day One
Dave Tickner picks out the key points from day one of the third Ashes Test match at the WACA.
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Just three Tests after coming of age with a maiden century at The Oval, Steve Smith did it again at the WACA. While a winning side can more readily accommodate a struggling component, Smith's slow start had not gone unnoticed by those who continue to doubt his credentials as a top-five batsman at the elite level.
Even that fine Oval century came with caveats; final Test, series already lost, and so forth.
This time, though, the runs came with the series as alive as it has been at any stage since England's batting imploded at the Gabba.
Australia were 107/3 when he came to the crease and had just lost their skipper and star man Michael Clarke. Twelve overs later, it was 143/5. Fifty-seven overs after that, it was 326/6 and Australia's grip on the Ashes almost total.
This really was a fine century. Smith, so often vulnerable outside off stump, was decisive and near faultless in his defence both when playing and leaving and took full toll when offered anything loose.
That only three of his first 50 runs came on the offside is no criticism of him. He scored freely enough and was given so much chance to score easily on the legside that taking the riskier offside scoring options was unnecessary. His range of shot if not necessarily his scoring rate increased as his confidence grew and the bowlers' sank.
He attacked Swann down the ground and his pulling through midwicket from the seamers was rarely less than perfect. England will think they could've bowled better at him, but so solid was his defence that it may only have slowed rather than stopped him.
This is an exciting, improving cricketer who has taken another decisive step towards cementing a spot in this top six.
2. To the rescue
Today's was a familiar tale in this series. Australia win the toss. Australia's top order fail to fully capitalise on this. England get the door ajar. Australia slam the door shut.
There has been one more constant in these repetitive storylines. Brad Haddin.
The Aussie keeper has been involved in century partnerships in all three first innings. Those partnerships have begun at 132/6, 257/5 and 143/5. Every time he has walked to the crease on the opening day with the match at best in the balance and at least twice tilted in England's favour.
There has been good fortune in all those innings and today was no exception, but it would be simplistic and wrong to put everything down to that, however tempting.
Good fortune is no use if you don't capitalise, and Haddin has certainly done that. He has passed 50 in all four innings he has played in this series and the timing and importance of his runs means he is surely second only to Mitchell Johnson - who is currently ensuring both that England are generally five out, all out and that Australia are not - in terms of influence on this series.
3. Bowled over
A curious day for England's bowlers. They never really bowled quite well enough to explain a score of 143/5 and, most troublingly, didn't really look like pressing home an advantage handed to them by some bizarrely generous Australian batting.
The fact England selected three tall fast bowlers for this trip caused some raised eyebrows at the time, but the fact none of them made the XI here in Perth with England 2-0 down is particularly damning.
In an unusually, almost worryingly, frank post-play interview, David Saker admitted England may have erred in their selection here.
The stark truth, though, none of the three has made any kind of compelling case for selection. Against weak warm-up opposition, Steve Finn took 11 wickets at 33 (and an economy rate of 4.44 an over), Boyd Rankin seven at 33.5. Even with his four wickets in the first Test, Chris Tremlett has five wickets on this tour at over 50.
All three have made the usual dramatic improvements that happen to all players outside a team, especially a struggling one, but still remain some way short of the master of that particular category: Graham Onions. If England erred in selection, it may not have been in the bowlers they chose for this match, but in the pool they had given themselves to choose from.
Height in a bowler is like pace. It is an attribute, and a fine one, but on its own it is insufficient. Picking Tymal Mills would have been an act of insanity however often he tops 90mph on the speed gun. Picking one of the ganglatrons because they are 6' 8" is no better.
Mitchell Johnson hasn't had success in this series because he's bowled fast, but because that pace has been married to accuracy and a clear plan.
Finn/Rankin/Tremlett may have done significantly better than Tim Bresnan's 0/72, but it's a stretch to say that would be expectation rather than hope.
This series continues to feature some truly awful dismissals for the batting side. What's interesting is how these dismissals are perceived.
England's batting has been decried for its weakness, for a lack of character and fortitude, for the scrambled brains making poor decisions, for the sheer inability to cope with Johnson's bullets.
Australia's top-order batting today felt like arrogance , like a team determined to bully their opponents out of contention once and for all with a display of naked aggression from the outset.
And the results? Batsmen dismissed hooking to one of two men on the fence, clipping to midwicket and driving without due care and attention to give catching practice in the slips. For England's timidity, see Australia's bravado. Or maybe the narrative is a simpler one. Maybe sometimes batsmen just play bad shots, make bad decisions, and pay with their wickets.
5. Second new ball
Was there a case, given the extreme heat and tiring day, for England to hold the second new ball back for the second morning when the bowlers were rested and heads cleared?
On a flat pitch, seven precious overs of the not-new-for-long second Kookaburra were wasted as Smith and Johnson made hay against exhausted bowlers.
Holding it back would've been a gamble in itself, but may have been the better one in such extreme conditions.