A day of fluctuating fortunes saw England first press their overnight advantage before collapsing in something of a heap, losing their last six first innings wickets for 35 runs as they were bowled out for 403.
In reply, Australia were going ominously well at 203-3 but with their captain unbeaten and largely untroubled on 82 and Shaun Marsh on seven not out.
England will tell themselves they remain in the game but will have been kicking themselves at the close having dropped three catches on a day when chances did not come along easily.
Craig Overton, who finished with a sore rib having jarred it when bowling, got a hand to a return drive from Usman Khawaja when he had yet to score – a grab that would have been world class.
But Joe Root missed a sitter off the same batsman at second slip when he had reached 28 on his way to 50. And Mark Stoneman or Jonny Bairstow could have grabbed Shaun Marsh when he had seven after the ball rebounded up off his boot at short leg.
Both men dived for the ricochet but put each other off.
The most pertinent number up on the old scoreboard here in Perth was the 82 next to the Australian captain’s name.
Getting him out early tomorrow looks key to England retaining hope of a first innings advantage, something which will be crucial on a pitch that has cracks which will open up further towards the end of the Test and make batting last very difficult indeed.
Smith made batting look like shelling peas with no bowler really troubling him aside from Overton who got one to rise into his glove just before tea.
Yet England were able to make three breakthroughs, Overton nabbing the opening partnership of David Warner (22) and Cameron Bancroft (25) in his first spell before tea.
Chris Woakes made the other breakthrough dismissing Khawaja (50) hitting him on the pad in front of middle stump and seeing the on-field decision of Marais Erasmus upheld after a challenge.
Having built such a platform off the back of sweat and toil from Malan and Bairstow, England would have been disappointed their innings fizzled out so tamely.
The pair had negotiated the first hour effortlessly, adding 51 in 13 overs at just under four an over, but shortly after the drinks break Malan fell seeking to ram home England’s advantage.
Nathan Lyon has posed little threat on a pitch offering none of the turn of the Gabba and Adelaide and on day one Malan had used his feet brilliantly against the off-spinner.
But with 140 on the board those same feet felt that little more leaden and he was out reaching forward too far for a drive and getting a leading edge high to point where Peter Handscomb, on as sub, took a superb diving catch.
Malan’s exit prompted a collapse in which England lost their last six wickets in just under 10 overs.
Moeen Ali lasted just two balls before he was undone by a chest high delivery from Pat Cummins, likewise Chris Woakes this time from Josh Hazlewood. Bairstow was castled by an full, swinging bullet from Mitchell Starc to depart for 119 – his first Ashes hundred – before Overton and Stuart Broad were bounced out to complete the innings.
It was undoubtedly a flat end but it was still one which put England in an strong position – and one with history seemed on their side given only one team (India in 1977) at the WACA in 31 Tests have made over 400 batting first and gone on to lose the match.