England vs Australia: Fourth Test, Day 2 - Steve Smith double hundred heaps pressure on the hosts again
Smith made 211 as England's Ashes hopes dwindled (Photo: Getty Images)

Australia find themselves edging closer to retaining The Ashes after another spell-binding display with the bat by Steve Smith.

Despite slumping to 28-2 after the latest failure by David Warner, his series figures almost resembling a phone number, the ICC's top ranked Test batsman was the star of the show oncemore, ably supported by Marnus Labuschagne, Tim Paine and Mitchell Starc.

England lacked firepower in the absence of James Anderson as far too much weight was dumped on the shoulders of the aging Stuart Broad, finishing with figures of 3-97.

And the hosts' new look opening partnership of Rory Burns and Joe Denly could not see out ten overs under fading light, the latter dismissed after a brilliant catch at short leg by Matthew Wade.

Smith class

Former England captain Michael Vaughan claimed that "you don't get momentum after such a long gap [between Tests]". Incorrect. There was no doubting England were riding a wave of optimism following their comeback in the Third Test.

But the truth is that a sense of over-confidence and arrogance following that Ben Stokes innings was always going to be misguided. There was still the returning Steve Smith wall to try and knock down.

Smith is the true hero of the series. Rightly criticised and jeered in all sectors of every Ashes stadium following sandpaper-gate last year - it wouldn't be The Ashes without such bite - Smith has responded to all of his critics by letting his bat do the talking. Even after being concussed by a Jofra Archer bouncer that resulted in an absence from the Third Test. A true comeback.

When all of those around him struggled with the willow, Smith remained composed and concentrated, dominating the crease with his own unique style.

Travis Head and Wade both walked early in their innings but Smith continued to pile on the runs square of the wicket. And it was his captain, Tim Paine, who stuck with him throughout a large segment of that fabulous 211 which lasted over eight hours.

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Captain's innings

Paine has also been criticised, particularly for a lack of runs with prestigious talent Alex Carey waiting in the wings.

Yet this is a man who took on the captaincy with his nation in turmoil and rebuilt a more than capable side, looking set to retain that invaluable urn. A man who has taken the pressure away from the likes of Warner and Smith.

Paine stood with Smith for the best part of 40 overs, albeit after being dropped twice, guiding Australia from a precarious 224-5 to a potentially match-winning situation of 369-6. 

The Australian captain was eventually the second of Craig Overton's victims before a late flurry of fireworks from the returning Starc propelled Australia to a declaration of 497-8. Overton himself took on a large chunk of work as Jofra Archer looked tired and fatigued, finishing with figures of 0-97, and Ben Stokes saw runs fly off his bowling.

If Headingley was slipping into the shadows, it was almost invariably forgotten when Jack Leach, Stokes' partner in crime, bowled an unforgivable no ball as he dismissed, for a matter of minutes, Smith for 118.

Last week, Nathan Lyon had 'dropped The Ashes'. But how costly could his fellow spinner's mistake be, Smith adding a critical 97 to his total.

Problems continue at the top

To England and their struggling upper order against a fiery Australian bowling attack for ten evening overs. Other than Smith's little dig at Archer, who could have finally dismissed his man but for a difficult dropped catch on 65, the visitors had remained relatively quiet between Tests. But you could see the glint in the eyes of Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins. The ball was going to do the talking.

In truth, Joe Denly, promoted to open, did well to survive 24 balls. Deliveries continued to miss the outside edge as Starc and Hazlewood grinned like hyenas. 

Denly had explained to the BBC"I got a call from Joe Root after a bit of time off and he said he'd like for me to go at the top of the order and try and get us off to a good start." A hint of arrogance...from a man who has failed to score 50 in his last 15 First Class matches as an opener.

The dismissal was brilliant. An edge off Cummings deflected against Denly's body, in and out of Wade's right hand, before a phenomenal reaction to take the first wicket.

England closed on 23-1 with Rory Burns and nightwatchman Overton at the crease. Rain is due for Friday morning but the next session of action will be critical to the destination of the famous urn.