Unbeaten Smith stands firm on gusty opening day
Prolific batsman still seeing them like beach balls in Ashes return, with Marnus Labuschagne also posting half-century on rain-hit opening day of fourth Test
Andrew Ramsey at Old Trafford
5 September 2019, 10:00 AM AEST
On a day that tested the fortitude and humour of players and fans alike, Steve Smith stood serenely defiant to guide Australia to safe harbour, at least until daybreak.
Even by Manchester's reputation for hosting weather as lousy as its music is good, Wednesday at Old Trafford was foul on the rare occasions it wasn't worse.
But amid the howling westerly wind, the sheeting rain squalls and numbing cold of the first September Test match ever scheduled at the notoriously rain-prone venue, Smith shone like a comforting hearth.
In his return to Test cricket after suffering concussion from a neck blow 18 days earlier, he remained unbeaten on 60 when the day was abandoned an hour early with Australia 3-170 from the 44 overs bowled.
The former skipper's much-anticipated return bout with England's fastest bowler Jofra Archer, who had laid out Smith on the Lord's pitch, never caught light with the Archer fire clearly extinguished in the Lancashire tempest.
Rather, it was Smith's 116-run third-wicket stand with his Lord's stunt double Marnus Labuschagne (67) that enabled Australia to ride the breeze to relative calm after Stuart Broad's double strike saw them hit early turbulence.
Broad sent back openers David Warner (0) and Marcus Harris (13) inside the first half-hour, and then it became increasingly obvious that the Old Trafford pitch held far less menace than the weather which looks intemperate for the remainder of the Test.
The opening day's first rain interruption put paid to the entire afternoon session, and only allowed for a dozen minutes of play before another shower swept through and forced the players from the field.
That was sufficient for Labuschagne to reach his fourth consecutive Test half-century, making him the third Australia batter to reach that milestone in Ashes contests after Herbie Collins (1920-21) and Michael Hussey (2006-07).
The second rain event was not so much a delay as a pause, but the time it took for the Old Trafford ground staff to cover the pitch clearly incensed members of the England team.
Their belief that moisture on the surface might help batters by allowing the ball to skid on with greater predictability was born out upon resumption after five minutes.
Australia added 15 runs from a couple of overs as the hosts became increasingly distracted and seemingly rattled.
As the wind gusted upwards of 60kph, a beach ball and then a series of crisps packets rolled across the ground to create further breaks in play which worked to the batters' favour.
Broad was rendered especially cranky by the wind, which became so violent that umpires Marais Erasmus and Kumar Dharmasena removed the bails and the game proceeded for several overs without them.
Eventually, amid another round of England protests, they were replaced (briefly) but the ill-temper remained.
When Craig Overton finally found a way through Labuschagne's otherwise watertight defence, he gave the Australian a voluble send-off.
But Smith carried on regardless, reaching his eighth consecutive Ashes half-century (breaking his own record of seven) in typically unique fashion by almost falling on his face while stretching for a square drive that brought a boundary.
Smith was untroubled by Archer, who was below his best in the cold conditions and bowled little at the Australia star despite earlier predictions that he would be itching to have another crack after the incident at Lord's.
England skipper Joe Root had admitted at the coin toss that he fancied batting first if afforded the option, perhaps because the warmth of the Old Trafford dressing rooms were infinitely more inviting than the middle of the field.
But being the professional veteran that he is, Stuart Broad had spent a solid 15 minutes bowling on one of the worn practice pitches prior to play starting to ensure he was ready to roll from ball one.
And it was with ball four that Broad proved the value of that meticulous preparation, compounding Warner's ongoing torment by dismissing the Australia opener for the fifth time in the seven innings of this Ashes series so far.
Those five dismissals have come from just 87 deliveries that Broad has bowled to Warner, at a cost of 32 runs (average 6.4) as the former Australia vice-captain searches for form.
Broad, who had found his rhythm immediately with an icy 50kph westerly wind whipping in over his left shoulder believed he had Labuschagne lbw from the fourth ball he sent him.
An obvious inside edge convinced England not to seek a review, but there was no hint of bat when Harris was adjudged out in Broad's fourth over.
Bowling from around the wicket, the England seamer had been artfully moving the ball away from Australia's left-handed openers but surprised Harris when he jagged a delivery against the wind and past the inside edge.
So sharply had it moved that Harris clearly felt it was sliding past leg stump, and called for a review that confirmed umpire Dharmasena's call and left Australia in familiar straits at 2-28.
The sight of Smith at the crease certainly had an immediate effect on Archer.
The Barbados-born fast bowler had given every indication he was battling to cope with Manchester's 15C temperature and biting wind immediately before play started when – in stark contrast to Broad – he walked grim-faced around the wicket block with hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets.
That indifference was reflected in the first three overs, during which he routinely clocked speeds around 130kph which was well below the speed he showed in his debut Test at Lord's where he caused Smith so much trouble.
But the arrival of his favoured foe in his latest return to Test cricket brought an instant change in approach, as well as a rumbling roar from the crowd and a dramatic change in England's plans.
Had Smith held any doubts as to where Archer planned to attack him, the field employed by Root removed them.
Two in the deep on the leg side – fine-leg and deep-square – were complemented by a catcher at short leg and the mercurial Ben Stokes at leg-slip.
It took three deliveries for the inevitable bouncer to arrive, but by that time Archer had cranked up his speed to around the 140kph that was his calling card at Lord's.
While Smith was able to easily evade the short balls that came, the impact of the second Test blow was more obvious when Archer fired down a full, wide ball in the hope of catching his quarry unawares.
Clearly expecting more body bowling, Smith's weight was on his heels and – upon seeing the half-volley length gift – he threw his hands at the ball and it fortunately sped to the boundary rather than looping into the air.
But after five overs – two of which were delivered with the pace, if not the aggression for which Archer has quickly become renowned – he was replaced by Stokes, and not seen at the bowling crease for the remainder of the session.
As if to celebrate, Smith helped himself to consecutive boundaries from Stokes' bowling – a sweet cover drive and a savage swivel-pull – and when Broad was replaced by left-arm spinner Jack Leach, batting suddenly looked a whole lot simpler.
Labuschagne and Smith rattled along at a scoring rate of almost four runs per over on what proved to be a fast outfield, even for strokes punched into the teeth of the wind.
The only moment of genuine anxiety came when Labuschagne (on 30) was hit flush on the knee roll by a ball from Stokes that had swung back so pronouncedly that the bowler stopped mid-appeal to indicate it was sliding past leg stump.
However, that was not sufficient to dissuade Root from signalling for a review, which confirmed Stokes' suspicion and umpire Erasmus' decision.
Smith might also have been out on 27, although it would have taken such a confluence of unlikely events as to overtake the Headingley result in terms of incredulity.
Labuschagne had lent into a straight drive from recalled seamer Craig Overton with such effortless timing that the bowler was only able to fling his right foot despairingly as the ball flew past and, in doing so, grazed it with a metal spike on the sole of his boot.
Had the deflection somehow re-routed the ball on to the non-striker's stumps, Smith might have been caught marginally short in the process of backing up.
As it was, the only damage inflicted was a deep scratch on the ball which was deemed in need of replacement four overs prior to lunch.
England XI: Rory Burns, Joe Denly, Joe Root (c), Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Jos Buttler, Craig Overton, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, Jack Leach
Australia XI: David Warner, Marcus Harris, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Matt Wade, Tim Paine (c, wk), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood
2019 Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
England squad: Joe Root (c), Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jack Leach, Craig Overton, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Chris Woakes.
First Test: Australia won by 251 runs at Edgbaston
Second Test: Match drawn at Lord's
Third Test: England won by one wicket at Headingley
Fourth Test: September 4-8, Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval