Steve Smith in the runs again in gripping opening to Boxing Day Test

Steve Smith conquered his short-ball issues to hit his first half-century of the summer and help Australia to 257-4 on Boxing Day against New Zealand. Smith went to stumps unbeaten on 77 after a gripping day of Test cricket, where Australia claimed the honours in front of a bumper crowd of 80,473 after being sent in to bat.

The right-hander took himself into the top 10 of all-time Australian run-scorers, having played less Tests than all above him.

After a low key opening half of the Test summer by his lofty standards, Thursday’s knock was a return to Smith at his best as he played with great control. Out to bumpers and New Zealand’s legside field twice in Perth, Smith wore several balls on the body and ducked his way out of others at the MCG.

Fighting hard, he rarely pulled the quicks and when he did he hit them along the ground. He also drove tremendously; at one stage he hit spinner Mitchell Santner back over his head for six. If Smith reaches triple figures on Friday, he will become the first player to score centuries in five straight Tests at the MCG.

Travis Head will start day two alongside Smith, getting through a tough period against the second new ball to go to stumps unbeaten on 25. It came after Marnus Labuschagne chalked up a half-century for the fifth innings in a row before being bowled for 63.

Already the leading run-scorer for 2019, Labuschagne is yet to be dismissed for less than 50 this summer and has passed the milestone in nine of his past 12 innings. His 83-run third-wicket partnership with Smith was crucial in giving Australia control, after they found themselves in dangerous waters early as the Kiwis grabbed two wickets before lunch.

However, Labuschagne was unfortunate in his dismissal as he left a ball from Colin de Grandhmme (2-48) that hit his elbow and fell onto the top of his off stump.

After tongue-in-cheek claims of bodyline in Perth, where Australia’s top six fell to short balls in the second innings, no Australians were out to bouncers on Thursday. But the Black Caps still troubled the hosts with the kind of movement that has been missing from the MCG in recent years.

Left-armer Trent Boult (1-60) produced an absolute peach to bowl Joe Burns for a golden duck in the first over, swinging it in at the right-hander and nipping the ball back between bat and pad.

David Warner edged Neil Wagner (1-40) in the opening session with his feet stuck on the crease, allowing Tim Southee to take a one-handed stunner at second slip. Matthew Wade also edged behind, nicking one from de Grandhomme that swung in at him and cut away from the medium-pacer.

The wickets brought the MCG to life with thousands of Black Caps fans rejoicing and enjoying their team’s first Boxing Day Test in 32 years.