Steve Smith: The man of many centuries

Steve Smith did not cure cancer or reverse climate change at the WACA Ground on Saturday, but it can only be a matter of time. The Australian captain has become such a weapon that England is thinking of building an intercontinental shield against him.

Smith made 229 not out, his highest Test score, an innings almost without blemish. Is there any man who can match him? This day, there was. The oft-maligned Mitch Marsh made his maiden hundred, a crushing hand of 181 not out, and with Smith put on an unbroken 300 for the fifth wicket. The pitch was unyielding to the England bowlers, but the runs still had to be made, and duly and stylishly and without compunction they were.

The first of Smith's hundreds was the least order of business. Upon completing it in the first half hour, he rejoiced, then took a moment with his bat propped up against his leg to recalibrate his mind to nought. He had the whole day in front of him. He had told teammates the previous evening that he was just beginning.

It was his fastest Test hundred, to complement his slowest in radically different conditions in the first Test in Brisbane. It is our privilege to pick between Smith centuries, not Sophie's choice, but Smudge's selection, a premium package. What is it for you this year: any of the three minimalist masterpieces in India? Brisbane's exemplar? This one, vast yet flawless, a likely Ashes sealer?

There have been 22 centuries, all in a span of just more than four years, an unprecedented flowering. This innings also included his 1000th run this year, for the fourth calendar year in a row; only one other man has done that.

Quite how Smith did it all is, with the ICC's permission, cricket's million-dollar question. Everyone knows what he does it, because it is on full view for hours at a time, but how does he do it? Five years ago, everyone knew how to get him out. Now, no one does. Yet he is fundamentally unchanged. Perhaps it is this simple: then, we were looking at the hole. Now, we see only the donut.

Selling well at the WACA Ground this week is The Doctor's In, a history of the venue. Don Bradman features in one photograph, in his NSW cap, in the nets, driving. What stands out is his bottom-hand grip, far around the bat handle, a la Steve Smith. Perhaps it is not that other batsmen are orthodox, but that they are merely orthodox. As if to emphasise this, the covers ought to be closed off to such an alignment, but Smith made fully a third of his runs through there.

Smith reduced England to utter impotence. England came with plans, but only plans. Credit their perseverance, but they needed more: inspiration, distraction, disruption. They were as sparing with the short ball as Australia had been lavish. They knew already that Smith had an answer for it.

They tried to corral him to sectors, but the WACA Ground pitch does not lend itself to such containment, nor the outfield. Smith made his own gaps. Half an hour before tea, he stood leaning on his bat, legs crossed, while an English committee at the other end discussed what ball to bowl next. It was the picture that spoke 1000 words, at an average of 70.

In Adelaide, the English had tried talk, but here there was nothing to say, except at each succeeding milestone, a muttered "well played". Duly, commentators also ran out of words.

Demoralisation compounded upon itself. Twice, England referred refused lbw appeals. The outcome of the first was four leg byes, through Smith's legs. The other, it was soon revealed, Smith hit, was missing leg - and was a no-ball anyway, bowled by Jimmy Anderson.

It was as well that the day was so mild. For the most part, England kept its shape and humour. So, surprisingly, did the Barmy Army.

What else did Smith do? He coached and disciplined himself, a rebuke here, a slap there. Not that he had much need. Scares came only every other hour, and all were because of some idiosyncrasy or other of the pitch. One hit in the shoulder, another on a glove; mere bagatelle. His own concentration was unwavering. He played and miss four times, only once in defence.

Smith mentored his partners, as far as was needed; this day, there was not much twitching in the Marshes. Shaun's wicket was an aberration in its time, following immediately upon two boundaries. But Mitch speedily expanded into his role. In 130 balls, he had the hundred he knew was long overdue, and celebrated it exuberantly before buckling in again beside Smith.

Marsh's was a powerful innings, one to hear as well as watch. The adjective "straight" had two applications this day, to England's bowling and Marsh's strokeplay. For some of his drives, the sightscreen attendants were skipping out of the way before the bowler had finished his follow-through. This was the crisp hitting of a man in form, picked because of it: credit again is due the selectors.

Not least of Smith's characteristics is ruthlessness. In the last session, England retreated, perhaps pitching for mercy. Smith took a seat and a chocolate bar at the last drinks break, then got up and batted to stumps. Marsh was only too pleased to accompany him.

Smith and Marsh redrew the terms and conditions for the Test match. While he was at the crease, England's 403 atrophied until it was invisible. By stumps, Australia led by 146. Smith, faultless in all his work, discarded his gloves and helmet, did the media rounds, then went inside to split the atom.

This story Steve Smith: The man of many centuries first appeared on The Age.