|Men’s Ashes: England v Australia, fourth Specsavers Test (day one of five)|
|Australia 170-3: Labuschagne 67, Smith 60*; Broad 2-35|
|England: Yet to bat|
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.
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 at 17:30 BST.
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.
Smith survives the elements
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 on Friday will go a long way to deciding the match, albeit with more rain forecast over the next two days.
Australia recover from early wobble
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.
England battered by the weather
Broad bowled beautifully early on, swinging the new ball away from the left-handers and occasionally getting it to nip back off the seam.
However, after that, the England bowlers were collectively below par, even if they can perhaps be slightly excused given the difficult conditions they were having to battle.
There were times when the fielders were left frustrated at the problems caused by the wind, with the bail issues and constant litter causing the Australia batsmen to delay proceedings.
Still, when the sun was out and the wind calm, Archer was down on pace, failing to fulfil the anticipation of his battle with Smith, one which brought a huge roar from the crowd when the two locked horns for the first time.
Leach began by bowling too short and both Stokes and Overton went at more than four runs an over. Under the floodlights, one was left wondering what the full length and movement of the omitted Chris Woakes may have achieved.
Overton at least produced the ball that got Labuschagne and Stokes bowled a fiery spell at the end of the day, but they were rare moments of penetration.
‘Australia have nullified Headingley’ – what they said
Former England captain Michael Vaughan on BBC Test Match Special: “What today proved to me is that all the talk of momentum between games is absolute nonsense. What Australia have done today is nullify Headingley.
“Against both batting units, if you can be consistent outside that off stump, things can happen. I wonder whether England will realise that they’ve potentially missed a big opportunity today.”
England bowler Craig Overton: “It was quite a frustrating day with the wind but it was nice to get the wicket. It’s tough in these conditions.
“Steve Smith is the big one that we want to get. We’ll come back with a positive attitude and try and get him early.”
Australia batsman Marnus Labuschagne: “To have a loss like that [at Headingley] which was in our grasp was disappointing but the way went about the game today we are here and in the contest. We are really keen to secure the Ashes.”
Ex-Australia bowler Glenn McGrath: “I don’t think England bowled as well as they would have hoped. These conditions, going on and off, are always more difficult for the fielding side. I didn’t see too many demons in this pitch.”
Injured England pace bowler Mark Wood: “On a day like this, it’s hard to get that intensity right up. It feel like a miserable day altogether. It was a bitty day.”