Steve Smith stared down a depleted England attack and a hostile Edgbaston crowd as his superb century single-handedly rescued Australia on the opening day of the 2019 Ashes.
The first Specsavers Test would have kicked off with England seemingly well in the box seat had Smith not hit a brilliant 144, more than half of his team’s 284 all out and a distant dream after they limped to 122 for eight.
Sixteen months after watching their careers collapse in disgrace following the sandpaper scandal Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft all returned to boos, jeers and brickbats from the notoriously raucous Birmingham crowd, but while the latter pair faltered Smith flourished.
England had one hand tied behind their back from the moment record wicket-taker James Anderson was struck down by a right calf injury that restricted him to one four-over spell, and he faces an uncertain future in the match and the series.
But in his absence Stuart Broad stood tall, claiming five for 86 to reach 100 Ashes scalps, while Chris Woakes added three for 58.
Both hauls would have been prettier still had Smith not coaxed stands worth 162 out of tailenders Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon.
Joy, relief and bloodymindedness were etched across Smith’s face as he celebrated his 24th Test hundred, and a ninth against England, before he cut loose late in the day to punish a tiring attack.
After he was finally toppled by Broad, Rory Burns and Jason Roy were left to face two awkward overs at the close but held their nerve to reach 10 without loss.
There was an element of pantomime after Australia won the toss and opted to bat, Warner and Bancroft walking to the crease to a predictable volley, plus a chorus of “cheats, cheats, cheats” from the Hollies Stand.
Warner almost gave his detractors the ultimate satisfaction of a golden duck when he nicked Broad’s loosener down leg, but the seamer’s appeal fell on deaf ears – the first in a litany of incorrect decisions from umpires Joel Wilson and Aleem Dar.
Joe Root’s failure to review ended up costing England only two runs, however, Broad snapping up the first wicket of the series in his second over.
Rapped on the pad by a fast, full delivery from round the wicket, Warner wrongly declined to query the lbw and trudged off as England fans sang “cheerio” and waved squares of sandpaper.
It took Bancroft 25 minutes to get off the mark and it was only a matter of time before Broad struck again, pushing him deep in the crease with a series of yorker-length deliveries then clipping the outside edge with a leg-cutter.
Bancroft crossed with the incoming Smith, inviting the loudest reactions yet, egged on by Broad.
The seamer beat Smith’s outside edge three times on nought but while he hung on Usman Khawaja could not, nicking Woakes behind.
Smith and Travis Head came together at 35 for three and added 64 before Woakes had the latter leg before, kicking off a sequence of five wickets for 23 runs in a one-sided afternoon session.
Matthew Wade, James Pattinson and Pat Cummins all fell lbw to different bowlers – Woakes, Broad and Ben Stokes – with Pattinson failing to challenge another poor decision.
But it was captain Tim Paine was guilty of the most irresponsible stroke, pulling Broad’s short ball powerlessly to Burns in the deep.
Broad’s eyes bulged as he threw his hands over his mouth – a knowing recreation of a celebration first seen during the 2015 Ashes and which has since become a well-worn social media meme.
The wicket England really wanted was Smith but barring one ill-judged leave to a seaming delivery from Broad on 34 – given out but reprieved by the third umpire – he reeled in a secure half-century.
All he needed was a reliable partner and in Siddle he found one. The veteran bowler played with a straight bat, scored with authentic shots and, crucially, allowed Smith not to worry about protecting him.
Their partnership began frustrating England but ended up doing serious damage, adding 88 to the score and taking Smith within sight of his hundred.
Moeen Ali was the man to finally remove Siddle, after more than 23 overs, with Jos Buttler taking a sharp bat-pad catch under the helmet.
Lyon’s arrival saw Smith cut loose, turning down singles to farm the strike and relying on boundaries.
There were two sixes, off Moeen and Broad, but it was the cover drive for four which meant the most, taking him to three figures and confirming his status as a batsman of true substance.
His fun continued until Broad bowled him late in the day, guaranteeing England’s openers 12 nervy deliveries before stumps.