Ashes 2017-18: Slow, steady, brilliant - Smith records an Ashes ton for the ages

Steve Smith, take a bow. Not for the first time the world's best batsman has taken centre stage in the Ashes arena but, in his team's time of need, the Australian captain delivered one of his greatest performances.

Smith avoids a sharp delivery.

Smith avoids a sharp delivery.

With a sixth Test hundred against England and his 21st in total, Smith once again led by example, setting the tone for a late short-bowling onslaught from Australia's pace trio on a suddenly lively Gabba wicket that left the tourists clinging on in their second innings at 2-33.

In an eventful last hour, Josh Hazlewood removed Alastair Cook for seven and James Vince for two in quick succession, a Mitchell Starc thunderbolt clattered into the grille of Joe Root's helmet and a fired up Pat Cummins gave Mark Stoneman a working over. 

An enthralling first Test will resume for its penultimate day today with Australia trailing by seven runs.

For that, they have Smith chiefly to thank. In the grand tradition of captain's knocks, Smith's magnificent and unbeaten 141 steered Australia back into a low-scoring but pulsating contest on the third day.

At 5-175 in the morning, the hosts were on the brink of a sizeable first-innings deficit but assisted by budding all-rounder Cummins (42) Smith assiduously hauled them from the brink against a world-class bowling attack that tossed everything at him.

In the end, their total of 328 established an advantage of 26 valuable runs.

The anchor for Australia, Smith was in the middle for 514 minutes. It was his longest Test innings, taking one minute more than he did in his 199 in Kingston in 2015 and two more than his unbeaten 178 in Ranchi this year.

By no means was it his most dazzling display, but it was no less aesthetically pleasing. He has certainly played few more important. It mattered nought that it took him 261 balls to reach his hundred, with only nine boundaries to his name at that stage in what was the slowest century scored by an Australian in an Ashes series since David Boon at Lord's in 1993. There was a broader objective in mind.   

Defeat at the Gabba, where Australia have been impenetrable for nearly three decades, would be a disastrous start to the series and Smith knows it.

That possibility of that grim scenario hasn't been extinguished just yet but the 28-year-old went a long way towards decreasing it.

England's inventive captain, Root, and his bowlers, fronted by the wily and worldly James Anderson and Stuart Broad, tried just about every trick in the book against him. They bowled straight at him, they bowled wide at him, they bounced him. More than once he reared back from a snorting short delivery for his own well-being. He ended up on his backside escaping the trail of a particularly nasty one from Broad. 

Nothing worked for the tourists, who had an injury scare when Anderson reached for his side at one point and was afterwards on and off the ground.

For Smith, who had crept towards three figures before reaching the milestone with a cover drive off Broad that zipped to the boundary, the labour was all worth it. With an eye towards minimising the size of a fourth-innings chase here, he and No.11 Nathan Lyon pressed past England's total and beyond.

There is also a battle in store for England's batsmen if the closing stages yesterday were any indication. Hazlewood, off his game earlier in the match, suddenly had the ball talking. Cook was out cheaply for the second time in three days, a mis-timed pull shot caught superbly by Starc running across to long leg. Vince was soon after squared up and edged Hazlewood to Smith at second slip.

Sensing the opportunity, Starc and Cummins went for the jugular. Root (five not out) was smacked in the grille by a Starc bouncer, bending his helmet out of shape in a collision that led the stem guard to fly off. Starc and other Australians rushed to the side of the England captain to check his condition as he took the helmet off and called for a replacement.

The game was held up for five minutes while Root underwent a concussion test. He passed it, took his guard and had another bumper sent at him by Starc. This time he ducked under it. 

This story first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald