Urn within reach after Marsh, Smith centuries

If there's daylight between Don Bradman and the rest in Australian cricket, it's fast becoming the same with Steve Smith and those behind him.

Australia have moved within sight of regaining the Ashes in Perth after the captain and Mitchell Marsh put England to the sword, pushing the visitors to the edge of no return.

Smith, who has spent close to nine-and-a-half hours at the crease after batting through the third day, left some of the greats of the game in awe with an epic double century, his second, while Marsh silenced his critics with his maiden Test ton.

The world's top ranked batsman set up the innings with his 22nd Test ton up but it was Marsh's breakthrough knock that opened the prospect of the urn exchanging hands out west.

The pair's game-changing 301-run partnership highlighted the costliness of England's first-innings collapse, which has been the turning point of this match.

The home side added 346 for the loss of one wicket on the third day to reach stumps on 4-549, a lead of 146, with Smith unbeaten on 229 and Marsh on 181, after giving his partner a 116-run start. The plan will surely be to gain a big enough advantage to avoid having to bat again.

"I loved his intent. He defended the good balls, and put way the loose ones. That's batting, and thats what we spoke about out there," Smith said.

"It was about not letting anyone else having a crack at it. We just wanted to be in the middle and keep batting and batting. We put on 300, it's a magnificent effort."

England are demoralised and if the forecast rain for Sunday and Monday does not arrive there is a strong chance this series will be over by Christmas.

Joe Root's men had the sort of day that can break teams and, dare we say it, end careers. James Anderson and Stuart Broad drew blanks, the former asking photographers to fetch the ball from the rope for him, the latter posting an unwanted hundred.

Selectors have waited a long time for Marsh to come good, copping plenty of criticism along the way. More came when he was recalled at the expense of Peter Handscomb but their faith has been rewarded.

The four men they have drafted into the team this series - Cameron Bancroft, Tim Paine and the Marsh brothers - have all played key roles. But none have been as important as Smith, who showed yet again he is in a league of his own.

Only the peerless Bradman has taken fewer Tests than the 59 it has taken Smith to reach 22 hundreds. Next is Matthew Hayden on 73. No player in world cricket has scored as many runs as Smith has at the corresponding stage of their careers.

These are heady days for Smith, the one-time leggie whose career has been on the up for four years. Even if his curve was to plateau he would remain a formidable player.

When he hit his first Test century on home soil in the 2013/14 Ashes, he was the new kid on the block (for the second time). The sight of him raising his bat is now as much part of the Australian summer as the sun, surf and sand.

When Smith assumed the captaincy full time two years ago he vowed to lead through his performances. Few can argue he has not honoured his word. In 29 Tests in the captain's blazer, he has 14 tons. His average as leader is in the 70s, well above his career mark.

As well as Dawid Malan and Jonny Bairstow played to reach triple figures, they were shown the importance of going big. Smith is not content merely with 100. Of his past five centuries, three have been converted to 150s.

Smith found the going toughest after a milestone. First at 100 then in the 150s and again after 200, at one point needing a seat during drinks to have tape applied to his right wrist.

But for Smith, lapses in concentration result in shots that do not quite come off the middle rather than dismissals.

At times it seemed England did not have enough men in the field, such was his ability to score at all parts of the ground.

Or perhaps Root had his men in the wrong places. Against India, the introduction of a leg slip was the sign they had run out of ideas.

The cue for England was the addition of a silly mid-on to mid-wicket after Smith had passed three figures. They have not given up getting his wicket but are living more in hope than genuine belief.

Smith's presence would have been a calming influence on Marsh in his comeback Test. Normally the subject of scorn on social media, Marsh had his critics eating his words though there will still be some who believe this was a junk-time special. Some people cannot be pleased.

This story Urn within reach after Marsh, Smith centuries first appeared on The Age.