USMAN Khawaja is on the verge of a confidence-boosting century and Steve Smith on the cusp of Ashes immortality as a historic day of Test cricket beckons at the SCG.
The first item on the milestone agenda will be Khawaja ticking off the nine runs he needs to score a brilliant maiden hundred in his home town Sydney, the ground where he made his much-vaunted debut against England seven years ago.
Khawaja’s (91 not out) knock has put Australia in prime position to finish the summer in a blaze of glory and at the same time he has cemented himself as the side’s No.3 at a crucial time in the lead-up to a heavy-duty tour of South Africa.
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The left-hander, who has endured an enigmatic past 12 months, even looked comfortable against the spinning ball which has given him so much trouble in the past as he put his head down and carved out what is shaping as one of the finest hundreds of his career.
However, undoubtedly the main event today will be Smith’s push to walk in the shoes of the one and only Sir Donald Bradman.
Resuming on 44 not out, Smith has his eye on a fourth hundred for the Ashes series – an extraordinary achievement of personal dominance that only Bradman and legendary Englishmen Wally Hammond and Herbert Sutcliffe have managed.
Australia are 153 runs behind on the first innings but cruising at 2-193, after Khawaja and Smith put on a hundred-run stand that made up for a sloppy morning in the field that allowed England to a total of 346.
Records come and go in cricket – take Smith’s second fastest to 6000 Test runs mantle achieved yesterday for example – but joining Bradman as an Ashes juggernaut is one that would stand the test of time.
“It’s crazy. He prepares the way that most other guys do. They sit down there and get their gear on watching the game, but he just goes out there and looks from ball one like he’s been batting for three hours already,” said Pat Cummins, who took four wickets in his SCG debut.
“There’s no obvious weakness, no obvious time that it takes him to build into his innings. He just looks from ball one like he knows his game so well. He’s so confident and looks to be in great touch.
“You lose a couple of wickets, but he walks to the crease.
“(Looming Ashes records) is just an incredible feat and I think all those big innings he’s played as well they’ve all been really important. In Brisbane and in Perth they were match winning and in Melbourne it was match saving.
“It’s just incredible and he’s been the real difference between the two sides.”
David Warner looked unstoppable for his 56, but there would be no fourth consecutive Sydney Test century when he nicked off to a superb off-cutter from James Anderson.
Opener Cameron Bancroft departed in just the third over of the day for a duck to leave Australia 1-1 but despite his own struggles this summer, Khawaja went about rebuilding the innings and his own reputation.
LISTEN: Andrew Menczel, The Sun’s John Etheridge and News Corp’s Ben Horne review day 2 from the SCG
Criticised for being too lethargic and lacking intensity, Khawaja had his head in the game right from the get-go and the runs flowed.
One of Australia’s most beautiful players to watch, Khawaja made two 50s this summer when the series was on the line, but he was marked harshly because over the past two years he’s been so much better.
Australia had worries over Bancroft and Khawaja as two members of their top three coming into the Test, but at least one of those fears has been alleviated.
Khawaja played England’s spinners off the break, a marked change from a player who at times has looked all at sea against slow bowling.
“He got a great reception when he walked back in,” said Cummins.
“We were all just really happy for him. We know how well he’s been hitting them all summer, he just hadn’t got that big score that’s got him away.
“Every time he plays State cricket, he’s always a class above and pushes himself into great form for the summer ahead.
“It’s great to see him score big at his old home ground. His play against spin today was really good. I even saw him play a reverse sweep. He used his feet and he just looks like he knows his game really well.”