Only 44 overs of play was possible on a rain-curtailed first day of the Fourth Test at Old Trafford. Australia finished the day at 170/3 with Steve Smith and Travis Head at the crease.
England bowlers continued to have no clue on how to dismiss the number one Test batsman in the world as he creamed his way to a record eighth consecutive Ashes 50+ scores. After an initial setback of losing the openers Marcus Harris and David Warner, Smith along with the rising sensation Manus Labuschagne ensured to keep the lacklustre England bowlers at bay while scoring at a brisk pace.
In the much-awaited battle before the Test, Jofra Archer bowled only seven deliveries to Smith before lunch. In the first few overs of their first spell, the average speed of Archer was slower than Stuart Broad, probably saving his energy for when Smith was in. Bowling at Smith, Archer had a spring in his stride though the pace that we have seen the Barbadian achieve was still missing. In the first session, Archer’s average speed was 86mph against Smith as compared to 83 mph against other batsmen. The only moment of action between the two in the first session came about when Smith crashed an 88mph half-volley from Archer through the covers for four. In a pre-emptive measure to be ready against the short ball, Smith was visibly standing back while playing a full-ball, but the genius of Smith still had him hit the drive with full control.
One expected Archer to be back for a quick burst after drinks but that was not to be. The pressure created in the first hour was released on the space of two overs when Ben Stokes and Jack Leach were hit for two boundaries each in their respective overs after lunch. Labuschagne showed exceptional judgement and patience on the balls outside the off throughout his innings. Hence forcing the bowlers to ball into him to which he was ready to pounce on and hit to the boundary nonchalantly. The best of the lot was a straight drive against Broad after which he coolly blew a bubble gum.
Earlier in the day, Warner’s woes against the right-arm pacers bowling round the wicket in this series continued. Into his second ball, Warner half-heartedly left a ball wide outside his off-stump only to find a leading-edge through to the keeper. He now averages only 7.57 at that angle against right-arm pacers in this series.
Harris looked solid to the ball moving away from him and demonstrated good judgement. He also hit a crisp boundary against Broad towards his preferred square area on the off-side. Broad, who displayed an exceptional first spell with the ball caught Harris in front of his stumps when the southpaw failed to read an in-swinging delivery.
The second session was more dramatic than the first. More than the cricket, the drama involved continuous interruptions due to rain, flying bails due to windy conditions and plastic wrappers blowing to the pitch. A curtailed session saw only 18 overs being bowled during which Australia managed to score 72 runs losing a solitary wicket of Labuschagne.
Post lunch, Archer once again bowled a five-over spell. However, the pace at which he bowled increased a bit but the zip and movement generated in the last two Tests left a lot to be desired. Archer struggled with his line too as he sprayed the ball both sides of the wicket. One such ball, a short and wide one outside-off, easily cut away for four by Smith, was described by Ricky Ponting on-air as the ‘Captain-Killer’.
Craig Overton and Stokes made the ball talk in the cloudy and windy conditions. However, the class of Smith and Labuschagne assisted them to play out the good balls and scored at four runs per over on a pitch that looked easy to bat on.
Smith brought his half-century with a bizarre shot. Stokes bowled one wide outside off to which Smith dived and went on his knees but such is the class of the man, he managed to time the cut to the boundary with perfection.
A moment of brilliance came about when Overton, playing in his fourth Test, first in England knocked Labuschagne out as he beat him on the forward defence with a ball that jagged back of the seam considerably.
Travis Head then joined Smith and had to confront an amazing burst from Stokes that almost had him out LBW to a swinging yorker. Rain followed the tea interval that ensured no further play was possible on the first day.
Earlier in the day, Tim Paine won the toss and elected to bat. Australia made two changes as Mitchell Starc was brought in for James Pattinson and Smith for struggling Usman Khawaja. England, on the other hand, made a solitary change of bringing in Overton in place of Chris Woakes.
Going into the second day, England will hope Archer uses the break to recover himself from whatever is hampering him to go full throttle. Australia, on the other hand, will hope that other batsmen can bat around Smith to ensure a strong first-innings total.