Jonny Bairstow kept his head with a fine century for England but Steve Smith showed a captain’s poise to guide Australia to 203 for three at the close of day two of the third Ashes test on Friday.
Smith was on 92 at stumps, with Shaun Marsh on seven, and the home side, already 2-0 up in the five-match series, having trimmed England’s first innings lead to 200 runs at the WACA.
Bairstow marked his first Ashes ton before lunch with a cheeky celebration, nudging his head against his helmet in a nod to his infamous ‘headbutt’ of Australia opener Cameron Bancroft.
The wicketkeeper’s sparkling 119 helped push England to 403, their highest innings total in Australia since the fifth test of the 2010/11 series.
England’s joy was tempered, however, by the runs that went begging. They lost six wickets for 35 in a sudden collapse late in the morning session, leaving the door open for Australia.
Smith opened it wider with an innings of typical poise, anchoring a 124-run partnership with Usman Khawaja (50) after seamer Craig Overton removed openers David Warner (25) and Cameron Bancroft (22).
“I think the game is evenly poised at the moment. Tomorrow’s a big day,” Khawaja told reporters after his 10th test half-century.
“We talk about it in golf a lot - third day, moving day.”
England may need to contain Smith and Australia with an injury cloud over third seamer Overton.
The Devon bowler clutched his chest following a delivery after tea and came off the ground after receiving attention on the field.
England also rued some poor fielding, with Khawaja reprieved on 39 after he nicked Chris Woakes behind. The ball sailed harmlessly past the shoulder of Joe Root in the slips, the captain seeming to have completely missed its flight.
Two overs later, Smith struck a sumptuous cover drive for four to bring up his half-century and stepped up a gear to make Root pay.
Woakes saved Root further agony by trapping Khawaja lbw for 50 and the number three squandered Australia’s third review for the match seeking to overturn the dismissal.
Western Australian Marsh played watchfully to stumps, and Australia remain well-positioned to eat into England’s lead on day three, with the WACA pitch famous for its endurance.
Promoted up the order to six, Bairstow shared in a 237-run stand with centurion Dawid Malan, the highest by an England pair at the WACA and the team’s best fifth-wicket partnership ever in Australia.
It took a stunning catch by substitute fielder Peter Handscomb to break the stand, as he dived full-stretch at backward point to remove Malan for 140, with spinner Nathan Lyon forcing the miscued shot.
Malan’s dismissal triggered a breathtaking collapse, as Bairstow’s batting partners fell quickly around him.
Pat Cummins (2-84) had Moeen Ali caught by Smith at first slip for a duck, and all-rounder Woakes was snaffled in the deep for eight off Josh Hazlewood (3-92).
Starc (4-91) ended Bairstow’s 215-ball innings by ripping out his middle stump with a sizzling ball and combined with Hazlewood to clean up the tail.