Men's Ashes 2019
Smith's stunt double a second helping on testing day one
Steve Smith was joined at the crease by a young Queenslander with a number of similar traits on day one at Old Trafford
Andrew Ramsey at Old Trafford
5 September 2019, 07:29 AM AEST
There have been multiple times during this bowler-dominated Ashes series when Australia would have given plenty to call upon another Steve Smith.
On the evidence tendered during a bleak, blizzardly day at Old Trafford, that might not be as much a pipe dream as it initially seemed after Smith and his stunt double Marnus Labuschagne batted together for the first time in Test cricket.
It would be unfair to both men to take that comparison any further than their dual half-centuries and vital 116-run partnership in Australia's first-day score of 3-170 already convey.
After all, Smith this week reclaimed his number-one ranking among Test batters and resumes on Thursday 60 not out eyeing yet another century, while Labuschagne (dismissed for 67) has only just broken into the top 40.
But so smoothly has Labuschagne settled into the role of reliable top-order contributor, and so many similarities does he share with the player he famously substituted for at Lord's last month that the assessment will doubtless be repeated many times in coming years.
It was a direct result of Smith's 12-month suspension that Labuschagne found himself playing at Test level last year, to the surprise of many cricket fans beyond Queensland who knew little of the South Africa-born right-hander.
However, in the four innings he's played since making history by being the first men's player substituted into a Test due to a teammate suffering concussion (Smith), Labuschagne has shown himself to be Smith-esque in terms of irreplaceability.
He has now completed four consecutive half-centuries from his first four Ashes innings, a record that would sparkle at any time other than the same day that Smith extended his run of consecutive Ashes fifties from an unprecedented seven to a scarcely believable eight.
Then there are the other striking similarities.
Both are self-described cricket 'nuffies' who obsess over new pieces of equipment, happily spend hours 'shadow batting' against imaginary bowlers, and would devote all day in the practice nets if they could find someone similarly consumed to bowl at them.
So when Labuschagne looked to extend his practice time at Old Trafford on Test-eve, the willing co-conspirator who spent a half-hour hurling balls at him using the 'sidearm' throwing device was none other than the former Australia skipper.
"It was a bit surreal, really – Steve Smith throwing sidearms to me for thirty minutes," Labuschagne said after a rain-interrupted and wind-plagued opening day of the fourth Test.
"But I love talking to him about the game and learning off him.
"It's a great experience, and a great player so I'm just taking it all in as much as I can.
"I've never batted with him before, so it was a good experience to see how he goes about it and learn from him out there.
"We're constantly talking out there about what the bowler's trying to do and what he (Smith) is trying to do.
"We're thinking similar, and where they (bowlers) are trying to get us out.
"That's one thing he's very good at.
"I see that at the other end, but you can also see that as a spectator.
"When different guys come on (to bowl), how he changes different guards, the way he bats, different pre-movements, and I think that's what makes him the best in the world.
"He's always one step ahead, thinking ahead and not being reactive.
"He's being pro-active, which makes him very hard to bowl to because he's always thinking ahead."
What Smith's prescience might not have foreseen upon his return to Test cricket at Old Trafford was how his hugely hyped individual contest with Jofra Archer would play out.
It was Archer who struck Smith at Lord's and sidelined him from the third Test at Headingley – which Australia lost in his absence – and much had been made of how the England quick was looking to re-open any mental scars he might have inflicted that day.
That was certainly the feeling among the crowd that had packed Old Trafford despite the wintry autumn weather, and who had to wait less than 40 minutes for the battle they sought to materialise.
The loss of both Australia openers to Stuart Broad inside seven overs meant Smith strode to the middle with the ball new, the fans in full voice and Archer barely warmed-up being three overs into his day's work.
As it turned out, the Barbados-born quick remained about as tepid as Manchester's dreary day for the remainder of the afternoon.
Even though he bowled demonstrably faster at Smith than he had at any of the Australia batters who preceded him, Archer rarely resembled the weapon that had taken down the ex-captain at Lord's.
He bowled just seven deliveries at Smith in his first spell, two of which were bouncers and both so short they sailed harmlessly over the untroubled batter's head.
When he returned after a three-hour break due to squalling rain, Archer bowled with the westerly wind howling over his left shoulder which should not only have aided his speed but also his already frightening ability to angle the ball into right-handed batters at pace.
But again, his impact was minimal and his discontent at the Arctic conditions palpable.
Of the 20 deliveries he fired down at Smith, only one – the third after the resumption that squared-up the Australia lynchpin and saw the ball squirt wide of the slips cordon – looked capable of getting him out.
While Archer found better pace and regularly pushed beyond 140km/h, his lack of intensity on the slow but true batting surface meant Smith was rarely rushed and threatened even less often.
Of the five genuine bouncers he delivered, three of them were misdirected down leg and the two that were on target had to be pitched sufficiently short in order to gain the requisite height that Smith had sufficient warning to duck safely beneath them.
The more potent balls were those of fuller length and aimed into the 30-year-old's body, but such was Smith's surety in dealing with those while working across the crease he had few issues in tucking them away for runs on either side of the wicket.
From where he stood at the other end, Smith's understudy observed and admired the way his new mentor dealt with the anticipated barrage with such calm aplomb.
Labuschagne, who has also been struck fearful blows on the head by Archer in this series, sensed that the England quick was below his quickest.
But he attributed that to the wretched weather rather than dare suggest the batting pair were working him out and getting his measure.
"He's got great skill and he can swing the ball, so he was obviously trying to a bit more of that today," Labuschagne said of Archer's 0-28 from 10 overs.
"We know that he's got that extra effort ball and that extra heaviness (of delivery) in him, but today's conditions it was almost like they (bowlers) were running into the wind from both ends.
"I can only assume as a quick bowler it would be quite tough to get rhythm when it's so windy and the wind's so consistent."
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