Superman Smith saves awful Aussies
Steve Smith is back, baby.
Australia's Ashes campaign had started in dismal fashion but the former captain came to the rescue, just as he has done so many times in the past, to provide a glimmer of hope in what was looking like a depressingly dark day.
There were three dramatic sessions on day one of the first Test at Edgbaston and it was looking for all money the headlines would be about the Aussies getting steamrolled by an imposing English bowling line-up.
They should have been, after the visitors collapsed to 8/122 midway through the day. But Smith had other ideas - and he acted on them to ensure a perilous position turned into a competitive total of 284 all out before England reached 0/10 at stumps.
The 30-year-old scored one of the most emotional - and surely most satisfying - centuries of his entire career as he brought up his first ton for Australia since returning from his year-long ball tampering ban.
Not since December 2017 had Smith raised his bat upon reaching triple figures for his country and the release was sweet after reaching the milestone with a cover drive to the boundary late in the day.
He took his helmet off, looked up to the heavens and soaked in the enormity of his achievement before swatting his bat towards his teammates in the dressing room.
A huge roar went up the moment the ball beat the fielder and while there was the predictable booing from a parochial crowd, Smith wasn't listening. He shared an emotional embrace with Nathan Lyon before putting his hands on his thighs, exhausted after his draining effort.
Smith said he was "lost for words" as he reflected on his incredible effort.
"Just really proud I was able to pull the team out of a little bit of trouble," Smith said.
"I saw the boys going berserk on the balcony which was just a huge moment and I'm lost for words to be honest.
"I think it's got to be one of my best hundreds, definitely. First Ashes Test match, the ball was doing a fair bit out in the middle so I had to work really hard.
"I know that the first Test of an Ashes series is always big so I didn't want to give my wicket up easily. I wanted to keep fighting and fortunately I was able to dig in today and get ourselves to a reasonable total."
Smith's spectacular knock of 144 - which came to an end when he was bowled chasing quick runs - saved his team's innings but it can't hide the fact the men picked to score runs didn't do their job.
Batting has been the Aussies' Achilles heel in Test series in the UK since 2001 - the last time they won in the Old Dart - and the nightmare trend continued in Birmingham, although it could have been so much worse without Smith and Peter Siddle's defiant 88-run stand for the ninth wicket, and Smith and Lyon's 74-run final wicket partnership.
They needed to produce something special because the rest of the order failed to fire. David Warner (2), Cameron Bancroft (8) and Usman Khawaja (13) all came and went as England dominated the opening session.
Warner endured an eventful but ultimately short stay at the crease - given not out when he was and given out when he wasn't before he became Stuart Broad's first victim, trapped LBW in the fourth over.
Warner's opening partner Bancroft, who was playing his first Test since the Cape Town cheating scandal last year, looked composed and struck two lovely off drives to the boundary but he struggled to rotate the strike before edging a ball to Joe Root at slip.
It was a loose shot from Bancroft, who went fishing outside off stump to a ball he should have left alone.
The boos that erupted upon Bancroft's departure didn't die down when Smith walked to the crease as the former Aussie skipper entered the contest under plenty of pressure to dig his side out of a hole.
Khawaja thought he'd survived when he edged Chris Woakes behind but England challenged the initial not-out call and had smiles on their faces when technology correctly overruled the on-field umpire's call.
Smith and Travis Head launched a mini rescue mission by combining for a 64-run, fourth-wicket partnership but Woakes trapped Head LBW for 35 to start the second session before getting rid of Matthew Wade for one in the exact same fashion.
Tim Paine joined Smith at the crease but fell for five when he pulled Broad straight to deep square leg, and James Pattinson was LBW without scoring - though he would have survived had he challenged the decision because the ball was going down the leg side.
Pat Cummins came and went quickly, badly misjudging a leave that saw him struck plumb in front of his pegs for just five.
Former England captain Michael Vaughan said on Twitter the batting was "atrocious" from the visiting side - and he was right.
England was doing all this damage even without the help of star fast bowler Jimmy Anderson, who went off for scans on his right calf after managing just four overs in the morning session.
It's the same calf the veteran injured playing County cricket this season and if he's unable to bowl again England's chances of winning the Test will take a hit - but it might not matter if the Aussies continue to wilt like they did on day one.
But perhaps the lack of an extra fast bowling option took its toll on the hosts in the evening session as Smith and Siddle rebuffed the enemy's best attempts to dislodge them.
Smith was at his determined best, shelving anything extravagant and focusing on preserving his wicket. As he usually does, he looked ungainly at times, but he didn't care.
Just as he played a dogged knock at this same ground against England in the World Cup semi-final, Smith proved yet again he's a bloody tough man to dislodge when he decides to dig in for the day.
He wasn't always fluent and his timing was rarely there, but his innings was his best for Australia since returning from a 12-month ban - and maybe the best of his career.
After grinding his way to 100, Smith opened his shoulders and peppered the boundary, eventually finishing with 16 fours and two sixes.
Siddle too showed his top order teammates what was required on an overcast day that favoured the bowling side. Like Smith, he refused to give his wicket away and frustrated the English attack by keeping them in the field for far longer than they would have imagined when they reduced the Aussies to 8/122.
Broad was sensational with the new ball for England, bowling a much fuller length than usual and troubling the top order as he picked up five very well deserved wickets.
With his partner in crime Anderson missing for much of the day, third seamer Woakes filled the void with aplomb. The right-armer was exceptional during the World Cup, bowling with relentless accuracy and generating movement through the air and off the wicket, and he continued that good form in Birmingham.
In previous series the Aussies have had little trouble dealing with Woakes but he's added an extra yard of pace and is a much different proposition to the one the baggy green brigade is used to facing. He finished the day with three wickets.