For years, it seems, we’ve been hearing from the game’s cognoscenti that Steven Smith is the future of Australian cricket.
He is now justifying the hype. An exquisite first Test century in Australia in scorching Perth heat not only rammed home his credentials emphatically, but slammed the door in the face of a briefly revitalised England in the third Test.
The baby face and the mild manners should not fool anyone. Smith is still only 24, and probably needs an ID card to pass security at a pub, but what he was able to conjure up on Friday was an indication there is no lack of hairs on this chest.
Michael Clarke’s side was not quite in a world of hurt when Smith strode to the middle of the WACA Ground just before lunch on Friday but at 5-143 their ambitions of driving a nail into England’s Ashes coffin here had gone right off course.
With a chanceless 103 not out, however, the Sydney prodigy saved a day that had threatened, for the first time since the opening stages in Brisbane last month, to go England’s way.
The profligacy of earlier in the innings was left in the rearview mirror as Smith, via a 124-run partnership with Brad Haddin (55), restored parity and, with an aggressive approach, strove to put Australia in charge.
They will resume on Saturday at 6-326, an increasingly good total given England’s failure to pass 400 since the back-to-back Ashes series began in July.
A saviour in Brisbane and a century maker in Adelaide, Haddin has been the ultimate counter-puncher in this series. Smith, by comparison, had not enjoyed the start to the Test summer he would have liked after a maiden hundred at The Oval in August to close the Ashes in England.
Hence, a comment from the England field picked up by the stump microphone which went: ‘‘You’re one Test away [from being dropped].’’
Smith said on Friday night he hadn’t heard the remark. ‘‘I didn’t get much [sledging] today,’’ he said. ‘‘I usually cop quite a bit. Today was pretty quiet for some reason.’’
The quality of his innings was such that little could be said by stumps, by which time he had bludgeoned two sixes and 13 fours.
‘‘It’s probably right up there for me and my career,’’ Smith said. ‘‘Obviously I was under a bit of pressure coming into this game, not scoring many runs. From ball one Ifelt pretty good; I think I summed up the position really well, and it paid off in the end.’’
Recklessness had left Australia in a hole, and England with a rare spring in their step.
David Warner’s 60 continued his fine series – he is averaging 86 – but a poor shot was to blame for his exit, and he wasn’t alone.
The Shane Watson knockers were given new material after a flashing drive at Stuart Broad that wasn’t on left him ambling back to the dressing room on 18.
The form of Warner, Clarke, Haddin and now Smith is covering up Watson’s shortcomings, and he will want runs in the second innings here to keep the issue at bay.
Clarke, too, won’t have been thrilled with the mode of his departure on 24, coming unstuck trying to rush spinner Graeme Swann.
Chris Rogers (11) was almost incomprehensibly run out in the second over, albeit brilliantly by James Anderson, and George Bailey (7) won’t want to see replays of his hook shot off Broad.
Smith, Haddin and later Mitchell Johnson (39 not out) reversed the trend, however, taking on a visiting attack whose over rate crawled along frustratingly.
‘‘No doubt we let it slip,’’ England bowling coach David Saker said. ‘‘It’s probably not the first time this series we’ve had them on the ropes to a degree and we haven’t finished the job.’’
A constant thorn in their side was Smith. In a difficult year for Australia he was picked as a back-up batsman for the India tour, and did not even make the original party to England. But in spite of that he has emerged as an unlikely stayer in the middle order, and according to none other than Ricky Ponting, a possible future captain.
By the look of it he is not just here for a good time, but a long time.