After their Ashes campaign finally set sail with Ben Stokes standing proudly on the helm at Headingley, England were blown off course on the first day of the fourth Test at Old Trafford.
The cold, wet and squally conditions might have been to no one’s taste – neither team, nor spectators, who witnessed just 44 overs in a frustrating day – but England’s bowlers, after a 10-day gap, either struggled to stick to a plan, or saw it blunted by Australia.
How different it might have been. After England lost the toss, Stuart Broad dismissed David Warner for the fifth time in seven innings this series to hand the unpopular visiting opener a second successive duck in the first over before trapping Marcus Harris lbw to leave Australia 28-2.
But that was about as good as it got, as watchful batting, wayward bowling and frequent weather interruptions put paid to any suggestions of the vague and elusive sporting concept of momentum being on England’s side.
A beauty of a delivery from the recalled Craig Overton aside, entertainment had to be found in the form of cricket’s unique quirks: blown away beach balls, loosened bails, stray crisp packets and a forced change of umpiring headgear.
By the time rain forced an early close at 5.30pm Australia had racked up 170-3 and, crucially, Steve Smith was still unbeaten.
Master and apprentice
Marnus Labuschagne was only introduced to the series as a concussion replacement for Smith. Now with the world’s No1 Test batsman back, England have two Smiths to contend with.
It was certainly a case of double trouble as the master and apprentice duo came together to halt Broad’s charge and put on an imposing partnership of 116 together. Labuschagne reached 67 before Overton nipped one back to dislodge his bails, while Smith ended day one on an ominous 60 not out.
Their dominance of the England attack is such that Smith and Labuschagne have now passed 50 in every innings of this Ashes series. Smith himself has eight successive half-centuries in Ashes cricket and is averaging 146 in the current series.
In fact, together they have scored 718 runs in eight innings at a combined average of 108, while the rest of the current team have managed 619 runs at an average of just 18.12.
Smith may be more unorthodox in his approach, with bizarre off-balance cover drives contrasting sharply with Labuschagne’s frequent legside flicks, but both players’ success has been based on their impeccable judgement and patience.
Following his World Cup heroics and explosive Ashes introduction Jofra Archer arrives at every game with a mountain of expectation. But after a whirlwind start to his international career he was subdued at Old Trafford.
To see the Sussex fast bowler ambling in to send down four acceptable but strangely innocuous first overs at around 82mph was at odds with what has come before.
Once Smith took to the crease his pace increased, but having averaged 87.9mph in the second innings of the second Test at Lord’s his speeds have progressively dipped to reach 83mph today.
It’s easy to forget when watching him in his pomp, but Archer is still inexperienced and just 24 years old. He can’t be expected to blast out Smith and company on his own.
Archer in fact had the best economy of all of England’s bowlers, with Broad, Overton and Ben Stokes mainly contributing to Australia’s healthy run-rate of 3.86.
The hosts clearly had plans to Smith and Labuschagne, but in truth they looked ineffective.
Labuschagne left well and plundered runs on the legside, while Smith ducked the bouncers and happily nurdled the rest into gaps in his idiosyncratic way.
There’s a long way still to go in Manchester, yet England’s batting struggles mean they can ill afford to bide their time and exploit Smith’s frailties once he reaches the nervous 140s.
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