Nothing shakes Smith's command and control

In the three years that Steven Smith has been leading his country in Test matches, he has already dealt with plenty of extraordinary circumstances. His very first day was a sapping one against India in Brisbane, there were the five defeats in a row to Sri Lanka and South Africa, an epic duel with Virat Kohli's India earlier this year, and a topsy-turvy day-night Ashes match in Adelaide.

Yet he cannot have experienced anything quite like the storm that enveloped the WACA Ground on day one, as stories of spot-fixing allegations swirled around the venue, the country and the world. Credible or not, they moved the Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland to address the team after play, a highly unusual event within a match. Sutherland's message, fuelled by 17 years' experience as the Australian game's chief custodian, was both universal and personal

"They certainly understand that we're very strong, we all take a zero tolerance approach to corruption in the game, but also the integrity of the game and the contest and the fans' confidence in the game," Sutherland told ABC Radio. "But also I wanted to make the point to the players that I understand any such allegation also undermines or takes question as to their own personal integrity, and they know and understand how important it is to the game but also to their own personal integrity."

As captain of Australia and perhaps the world's best batsman right now, Smith symbolises all that should be clean and above board about the international game. He has been receiving briefings and education about the dangers of corruption since his teenage years, is one of the very best paid players in the world, and carries a keen sense of preserving the game's overall health - writing recently that he does not want to be part of the generation that sees Test cricket "go down the plughole" and wants players to do all they can to ensure its short, medium and long-term health.

"Whatever the game demands," Smith said recently when asked what players needed to do to that end. "We now see day-night Test cricket that's come in and been a big success. The grounds have been packed, the TV ratings have been exceptional and it's a fabulous concept. Whatever the next demand is, whether it's four-day Tests or whatever, we have to just get on with it and ensure that we're doing everything we can to keep Test cricket alive."

Most fundamental of all to the game's demands is to play it with integrity, that word Sutherland was so apt to repeat. As a captain and a batsman, Smith has never carried even the faintest whiff of questions about his standing in that regard, so it was somewhat jarring to hear him asked about it all at the toss of the coin. "Obviously there's no tolerance and no place for that in our game," he had said. "As far as I know there's nothing that has been going on or anything like that, and it's just about focusing on this Test match at this stage and hopefully getting the result we want."

This was the backdrop against which Smith went out to bat on the second afternoon, facing a significant deficit after the Australians failed to hold their catches, bowled with rather too much variety and also burned both their DRS referrals with hasty appeals for lbw on a ground where so many deliveries bounce over the top. In other words, it had not to that point been the best of games for Smith, and a team selection placing Mitchell Marsh at No. 6 heightened the pressure for him to make spinal runs.

Given all the aforementioned distractions and questions, Smith showed an almost otherworldly level of command and control from the moment he arrived at the crease. Making the most of a rock-hard pitch and billiard table outfield, he scored freely and defended stoutly despite clear English plans that were more or less adhered to by disciplined bowling, targeting the stumps with a straight field and a modicum of leg side protection.

James Anderson spoke earlier this series about needing to ignore Smith's idiosyncratic pre-delivery movements in order to bowl the consistent lines required to test him. But so sure and certain was his rhythm this day, Smith recalled the assertions of a forebear in Ricky Ponting, where he would visualise an A4 sized piece of paper on a good length and line and reason that anything short of it was to be pulled or forced and anything full of it would be driven back down the ground. England's margin for error to Smith currently appears even smaller.

This is not to say that conditions were unchallenging. Craig Overton in particular delivered some stern stuff to defeat David Warner with bounce and then Cameron Bancroft with precision. Last ball before tea he found a lifter that climbed so steeply on Smith as to ricochet off his gloves and into his chin, causing Smith to reel away in shock and pain before walking off a little the worse for wear. Yet in terms of distractions, this was as momentary as the Sutherland address about avoiding corruption in the game.

As if to underline the fact, Smith next faced a short ball from Stuart Broad early in the evening session, and swivelled to hook it commandingly into the crowd. If the ball's flight over the head of Moeen Ali at fine leg suggested a hint of top edge, the HotSpot replay provided a useful indicator that like so many other shots Smith played, this too had struck right in the middle of the bat. Broad's reaction was the same as that made famous by Nottingham 2015, this time for vastly different reasons.

But a still more striking example of Smith's staggering combination of eye and hands was to come in the same Broad spell. He had already sent one straight, full offering screeching through midwicket, before two balls later shaping to pull a delivery that landed on the far side of Ponting's A4 sheet of paper. Instead of bouncing, the ball skidded through, yet an unperturbed Smith simply adjusted with a jabbing effort that once more hit right in the middle of the bat. Nothing, it seemed, could get to him.

Nothing, that is, except Marais Erasmus' lbw verdict to dismiss Usman Khawaja. If there is one flaw Smith has acknowledged more often than any other it is control of body language, and his unhappy reaction led to a long chat with Erasmus about it. As one of the most amiable match officials on the beat, Erasmus did not take undue offence, but appeared keen to remind Smith that he is out there to bat, rather than umpire - as much as DRS has blurred that line.

At length, Smith did return to the serenity of his batting "bubble", so pronounced as to have him on the cusp of reaching 1000 runs for the calendar year for the fourth time in a row. Among others to play Test cricket in contemporary times only Matthew Hayden has achieved that feat, putting Smith in truly rare company. Khawaja, who by contrast had plenty of difficulties with the tightness of the bowling and the variation in the pitch, was suitably awed.

"It's nice to watch, I've got the best seat in the house," Khawaja said. "He batted beautifully today. He sometimes seems to make not so easy conditions or any conditions seem really easy. More impressive about the way Smudge bats is the margin for error when you bowl to him is so little, as the English found out today. It looked like he hit a lot of balls that should have been dot balls for four. The WACA's a beautiful place when you're going and he was in fine form today."

Given his recent pre-eminence, it was perhaps not so surprising that Smith would make runs in Perth. But given the welter of distractions and pressures around him entering this match and this innings, not to mention those unknown or unspoken beyond the dressing room, the most incredible thing about it was how free and clear his mind appeared to be. That suggests a level of resilience and toughness beyond the reach of all but the very highest rank of cricketers.