Steve Smith once again had the measure of England’s bowlers on his return to the Australia side on a rain-shortened first day in the fourth Ashes Test at Old Trafford today.
Smith, who missed the third Test with concussion, notched up a record-extending eighth successive Ashes half-century to end the day 60 not out and take the tourists to 170-3.
Australia had been reduced to 28-2 after winning the toss, only for Smith to add 116 with Marnus Labuschagne, whose 67 was his fourth consecutive score in excess of 50.
After the euphoria of England’s extraordinary one-wicket win at Headingley which levelled the series at 1-1, this was a subdued occasion, thanks mainly to the bitter cold, blustery winds and persistent showers.
Bar Stuart Broad’s burst with the new ball, the home attack struggled to offer a sustained threat, matching the mood of a crowd which could not raise the atmosphere above the elements.
The players were not seen for three hours after they went off for lunch and, even though they managed to play through some rain, it got too heavy to prevent any further action after a late tea was taken.
Still, even though only 44 overs were possible, Smith took Australia to a good position on a pitch that looks ideal for batting now, but may be difficult when England come to bat last.
An Australia victory would see them retain the Ashes with a Test to spare.
A September Test in Manchester always seemed susceptible to the elements and, sure enough, this was a day when spectators shivered, players pulled on big sweaters and rain was never far away.
The gusts had debris constantly drifting across the field from the huge temporary stand and, at one stage, the bails were blown from their grooves with such regularity that the umpires simply did without.
If only Smith was as easy to blow over. It took a vicious Jofra Archer bouncer to fell him in the second Test at Lord’s and subsequently rule the former captain out of the drama at Headingley.
Here he returned and slipped straight back into the focus, judgement and idiosyncrasies that brought him scores of 144, 142 and 92 in his three previous innings in the series.
Smith and Labuschagne formed a master-and-apprentice partnership, the two Australia players that England have not been able to control batting together for the first time this summer.
Already, it looks like how long Smith spends at the crease tomorrow will go a long way to deciding the match, albeit with more rain forecast over the next two days.
After confirming that Mitchell Starc had replaced fellow pace bowler James Pattinson in his team, Australia captain Tim Paine took the opportunity to bat first on a slow, dry surface.
When Broad had David Warner caught behind for a duck in the first over – the fifth time he has dismissed the opener in the series – and followed that by trapping Marcus Harris lbw, it looked like England would ride the momentum of Headingley.
They were denied by Smith and Labuschagne, who eased effortlessly into the methods that have brought them so much success.
Labuschagne looked to score off the front foot from the pace bowlers and cut when spinner Jack Leach dropped short.
Smith nudged and nurdled into the leg side and played handsome drives, including an incredible one through the covers off Stokes while on his knees.
It took a beautiful nip-backer from Craig Overton to bowl Labuschagne, with Travis Head surviving a Stokes review for lbw to accompany Smith to what proved to be the close. (BBC)