For the greater part of the day Old Trafford looked like a windswept cricketing outpost in autumn. Hold on a minute, it is a windswept cricketing outpost in autumn. The presence of stewards standing like sentries out in the middle, their transparent pacamacs billowing in the gale, mocked the scheduling of an Ashes Test north of Watford north of August.
The rump end of a weather front whipping in off the Atlantic at least offered scope for humour. “It’s going to be sweltering today, 30 degrees,” Sky pundit David “Bumble” Lloyd informed colleague Shane Warne at the start of play. “Aye, 15 degrees in the morning and 15 in the afternoon.” Warne laughed. How could he not? “Robbie Williams’ old man let me have that one for free,” Bumble let slip during lunch. Should the meteorology continue to intrude negatively, there might be scope to return to that association later in the piece.
Deep into the afternoon, when play eventually resumed after a three-hour hiatus, we had a period when an ironic beach ball blowing across the square, followed by a crisp packet and then reluctant bails repeatedly falling from the stumps each forced a break in play. In the end, umpire Kumar Dharmasena lost patience and stuffed the bails in his pocket, befuddling some England players in the field who were clearly not abreast of the rules that allow play to continue. A few overs later the bails returned weighted by screws drilled into the ends. These were among the highlights at Ice Station Old Trafford.
Play did at least start on time, and, in the early exchanges, lived up to the billing with a wicket in the first over. Since Stuart Broad opened the bowling you can probably guess the identity of the fallen. Yes, that man David Warner – for the fifth time in seven innings – drawn into a nothing flick at a ball that seamed violently away. Broad followed its line with arms akimbo as he ran towards the celebrating slip cordon.
At one for one, the moment called out to Jofra Archer to really shake ’em up. The wind was not so much at his back as across him. The result was curiously underwhelming. Mind you, he was bowling in a jumper. His first over went through the mph speed trap at 81, 78, 83, 80, 84 and 84, plus fractions thereof, at an average of 82, 1mph slower than Broad. At this pace, Australia found Archer a straightforward proposition.
It was left to Broad to make the most of the new nut, accounting for Marcus Harris via umpire’s call with the last ball of his fourth over, a delivery that slammed into the left-hander’s pads from around the wicket. This, of course, brought Steve Smith to the middle to partner Marnus Labuschagne. His first ball since Lord’s would be against the man who put him out of that contest and the last at Leeds.
Archer’s first ball at Smith was 5mph quicker than his average at 87mph. His second was a bouncer. Though way too short, the temperature had risen markedly if not anywhere near the values of Lord’s and Leeds. The first ball of Archer’s fifth and final over of his opening spell, also at Smith, was the quickest of the morning, 88mph and flashed off the blade for four through point. His fourth ball hit 89mph but did not threaten a wicket. Skipper Joe Root had seen enough. This would not be an Archer day.
Stokes was the man to replace him, entering the fray to a rousing cheer that reflected his Headingley heroics. Stokes quickly forced Smith into increasingly bizarre defensive dances, including the reverse pivot to present his back to the bowler and the bat-over-the-shoulder move as if casting a fishing line into water. Via these weird rituals does Smith lock himself into optimal engagement. He never looked like getting out on the way to an unbeaten 60.
Labuschagne was equally untroubled until misjudging a ball from Craig Overton that came back at him to clip the top of off stump. Textbook stuff from the bowler who, in this case, forced the error by switching the shiny side of the ball to the inside. And didn’t Overton just love it when his plan came together. Australia’s day though, the weather forcing a premature end at 170-3.