Ashes 2019: 'Steve Smith deserves second chance'
A year and a half ago, the idea of Steve Smith scoring a century for Australia in the opening Test of this Ashes series would have come as a surprise to no-one.
Aussie captain, their best batsman by a mile, a century in four of his last six Tests against England. A man at the peak of his powers, averaging 56 against the old enemy, averaging 70 in his past three years of Test cricket.
That was before the Cape Town ball-tampering affair, before he plummeted from national icon into the gutter, before his ban and the public tears and all the opprobrium and remorse that came with them.
The sandpaper scandal did more than strip the sheen from Smith and his team. It triggered the most intense period of introspection and criticism that Australian cricket has seen. Because of the place Australian cricket has in the Australian psyche, it went beyond sport to the corners of the national character that little else can touch.
You were never sure Smith was going to come back to cricket, even though cricket has been his life. When he did, you wondered what he might find there, and whether he could be the same indomitable batsman again.
And yet you watched him at Edgbaston on Thursday and it was like nothing had ever interrupted him.
All the same maddening twitches, all the same maddening ability to stay there and stay there as all around are falling short. The ostentatious leaves, flicking his bat through like a matador with his cape. The moving across his stumps as if there were another set out beyond off. The clips off his legs and the wristy flicks and the little marches to short leg and back between deliveries.
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Smith was the difference between the teams and the difference between his own side and humiliation. His 144 was more than half his team's total but worth much more too.
The last two Australia wickets added 162 runs. Smith made 102 of them and through his presence drew the motivation and determination of Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon to stay with him.
You could discount all the context and still find it a supreme Test innings - idiosyncratic yet not far off flawless, stubborn yet free-scoring when the chances came, the concentration relentless despite the boos and chants that heralded his arrival and early travails.
There will be much talk of redemption. Smith's celebration when he drove Ben Stokes through the covers spoke to that narrative: helmet off, a look of weariness and relief first before finally the arms went up and the smiles followed.
That will feel wide of the mark to many. This innings does not change what happened in Cape Town and it does not pay back for all the damage that Smith - and David Warner, and Cameron Bancroft - did to the game with their subterfuge and deceit back then.
You can hold that view and still find great admiration for Smith and still be glad that he has been given a second chance.
Edgbaston may have mocked him as he jogged out towards the middle but it stood to applaud him as he left seven hours later.
Because, Smith apart, this was a first day defined as much by flaws and failure as it was by excellence, fine though the bowling was of Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes, who together made it possible to forget for a while that England had lost the most successful bowler in their history to an injury that might wreck his series.
The mistakes came from too many of Smith's fellow batsmen and from those who then attempted to bail them out. It was mirrored in plenty of the decisions of umpires Aleem Dar and Joel Wilson, who made a few errors that you could understand and plenty more that bordered on embarrassing.
Some of the England close fielders missed the edge down leg from the first ball Warner faced. Warner himself failed to review the lbw that did see him off, which was as curious as it being given in the first place.
Yet they kept coming. An edge behind from Usman Khawaja not heard; Matthew Wade not given lbw when Woakes' review showed the ball to be knocking back middle and off; a huge inside edge from Siddle into his pads not seen. Smith was given out lbw to a ball missing off stump.
Australia could not complain because, with few exceptions, they were culpable in their own downfalls.
Bancroft was caught between three different shots when he edged to first slip. Khawaja pushed at a ball outside off stump, Travis Head and Wade played round their front pads. Skipper Tim Paine pulled Broad straight down the throat of Rory Burns at deep square leg.
Ashes series seldom start with a sigh rather than an explosion. Too much history, too much to lose. Too much antipathy, even if much of it is tongue-in-cheek or overstated.
Wickets often tumble. The ball moves under warm skies and batsmen's feet and eyes do not always adjust. England were 43-3 on the first morning of the first Test in the last Ashes series at home and 30-3 on the first morning the series before that.
For Australia to wobble at 35-3 on Thursday and then at 112-8 felt both in keeping with that tradition and with most series predictions.
The fragility of both top orders is one of the reasons why this feels like a series to be decided by bowlers and the occasional stand-out innings.
On the first day of the Ashes Test here in 2005 England famously scored 407 in three sessions. This time around you could get 8-1 with the bookies on neither side making 400 in any innings in any of the five Tests.
You can also read too much into the opening exchanges of an Ashes. England bowled Australia out for 118 on the first day of the series here in 1997 and yet Mark Taylor's tourists won the series at a canter. England were bowled out themselves for just 215 on the first day in 2013 and won that summer 3-0.
The only time in the last 16 years that an Ashes series was won away from home, England's glorious 3-1 charge through Australia in 2010-11, Andrew Strauss went to the third ball and his side were dismissed for 260 before the first day at the Gabba was out.
But you can be sure of one thing: if Smith bats as Smith has always batted against England, he will make his side favourites to retain an urn he did so much to help win back in the first place.