Steve Smith provided a familiar face of resistance as he returned from concussion to lead Australia to 170 for three on a rain-shortened first day at the fourth Ashes Test.
Forced to sit out at Headingley, where England levelled the series in dramatic fashion last time out, the world’s number one batsman was well and truly back in the groove at Emirates Old Trafford, defying the home attack with another unbeaten 60.
England’s day began promisingly, Stuart Broad seeing off both openers with the new ball, but Smith’s stand of 116 with his Leeds stand-in, Marnus Labuschagne, swung things in the tourists’ favour.
Craig Overton, recalled for a first appearance in 18 months, eventually bowled Labuschagne for 67 during a blustery afternoon session but Smith’s continued presence, having scored 144, 142 and 92 in his three previous knocks, was increasingly ominous as England attempted keep the battle for the urn alive in Manchester.
The inclement conditions allowed for just 44 overs in the day, with stumps finally called at 6.10pm, but that was still enough for Smith to bank another two-and-a-half hours of crease occupation, taking his total across four innings to 13 hours. For England, that represents an unlucky number that is only heading in one direction.
Australia captain Tim Paine won the toss on a good looking surface and enthusiastically took up the option of batting first.
His optimism ignored the travails that have besieged his opening batsmen throughout the series and it took a pumped up Broad just four overs to send both back to the pavilion.
Broad has meticulously raked David Warner over the coals in this series and needed just two balls at the left-hander to dismiss him for the fifth time in seven innings. It was batsman error on this occasion, Warner shaping to leave outside off stump but leaving his bat hanging to leave Jonny Bairstow a simple catch.
Broad exploded in delight as he was mobbed by team-mates, leaving Warner to stomp off having bagged the first back-to-back ducks of his career.
Archer started with a solid but unremarkable stint at the James Anderson End but it was Broad whose nagging full length was causing problems. He worked away at Marcus Harris before getting his man, rapping him high on the front pad and persuading Kumar Dharmasena to raise his finger.
Harris called for DRS but replays showed the ball clipping leg stump.
That brought Smith to the crease, ushering in his eagerly-anticipated battle with Archer. After the box office showdown between the pair at Lord’s this was a soft reintroduction, comprising just seven balls – including two bouncers – before Archer’s spell came to an end.
Smith will have been happy with how he fared, ducking Archer’s short balls well and getting off the mark with a well-timed cover drive for four. With precious little sideways movement England were guilty of going too straight, too often allowing both Smith and Labuschagne to score freely on the leg-side.
With Ben Stokes’ radar off at the start his spell and Jack Leach starting with a couple of soft offerings, the scoreboard started to get away from England, with the pair’s stand worth 70 by lunch.
Labuschagne needed some lucky moments – top-edging a pull, surviving Stokes’ lbw shout on umpire’s call and edging Leach just wide of slip – but Smith was resolute as he caught up on lost time.
The weather turned at the break, with the players off for three hours before getting back out for a messy second session.
Both batsmen passed 50, Labuschagne in 88 balls and Smith eight quicker in typically eccentric fashion – following a wide from Stokes and flashing it to the cover boundary while simultaneously falling to his knees.
Heavy winds brought an element of farce to proceedings. Litter from the crowd repeatedly blew across the outfield, forcing numerous pauses in play, Smith swept a beach ball to the boundary when it skipped on to the pitch and the bails blew off often enough to persuade for the umpires to remove them entirely for a brief period.
All the while the game was drifting. In the end Overton made the breakthrough, nipping one back into Labuschagne and flicking the bails – which had thankfully been restored.
Stokes knocked new man Travis Head to the floor with a wonderful yorker but Joe Root frittered a review attempting to convert that moral victory into a wicket.