Smith, Marnus and Broad provide reassuring familiarity on a weird and windy day

Dave Tickner
Steve Smith beach ball Ashes Old Trafford PA

Cricket is the greatest sport there is. It is also the silliest. The opening day at Old Trafford had a little bit of the former and a great deal of the latter.

There was an odd lack of intensity about England’s cricket throughout the day. They weren’t exactly bad, but they certainly weren’t good. Like so much about a day in which the bails had to have nails twatted into them and Steve Smith went from seeing cricket balls like beach balls to hitting actual beach balls for four and Stuart Broad got angry with a crisp packet, it was all very strange.

On the one hand it felt bizarre for England to seem so subdued after their astonishing get-out-of-jail antics at Headingley. But perhaps it was in hindsight inevitable that getting feet back on the ground for the more mundane task of scrapping through the first day on a decent pitch after losing the toss was always going to be difficult.

The session after a three-hour lunch break was by far the weirdest of this series, remarkable as that is to say. Assorted things with no place on a Test cricket field were blown across the pitch. Beach balls. Crisp packets. Joe Denlys. It chucked it down for about a minute, and promptly stopped at the precise moments the covers were in place. Jofra Archer bowled lively medium-pace in his sweater. Jonny Bairstow kept wicket hatless. Nothing was as it should be, apart from Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith helping themselves to half-centuries with absolute ease.

Batting together for the first time in the series – a lengthy scouring of the laws revealed that technically there is no rule preventing Australia having both Labuschagne and Smith bat at the same time and if those are the sort of nefarious tactics they wish to deploy in pursuit of the urn then that’s a question for them and their conscience – England suddenly found themselves desperately short of answers. Steve Smith and Steve Smith replacements have now passed 50 in every innings they’ve played in this series, and now there are two of them. For the longest time, England had no answer.

David Warner Australia Ashes Old Trafford PA

Before they came together for their inevitable century stand came the inevitable removal of Australia’s openers. For the second innings in a row Warner departed in Broad’s first over without scoring. For the second time in the series, his paralysing uncertainty when facing Broad got the better of him in the most transparent way possible as he decided too late in the piece to leave the ball alone and edged through to Bairstow. It was without doubt the most inept attempt to leave seen in the UK for about 12 hours.

Broad has now removed Warner in five of Australia’s seven innings during this series. That’s 71.4%. That’s a landslide. Those five dismissals have cost Broad just 32 runs.

Marcus Harris actually looked very decent during Archer’s curious Gus Fraser tribute act before being pinned lbw by a full-throated Broad celebrappeal. As the day grew ever weirder, it was increasingly reassuring to have these familiar signposts to cling to. This was as far from the Headingley hysteria as could be imagined, but at least some things made sense.

Smith, meanwhile, has used his time off to develop a new and better way of playing Archer’s bouncer. It’s a delivery that generally comes back in to the right-hander, and Smith’s issues at Lord’s were caused by trying to sway inside the line and finding the ball following him. Today he was determined to get right across and duck with the ball going over his left shoulder. Even if it was a yard outside off stump. He’s also added the lightsaber block to his lightsaber leave, which is another welcome development.

Both he and Labuschagne looked thoroughly untroubled. Ian Botham’s shrewd advice on commentary that England should “get one of them out, if not both” went mysteriously unheeded.

The rain came at lunch. By sheer good fortune, it stopped and mopping up had been sufficiently completed by 3.40pm for a restart to be announced for 4pm. So straight after the scheduled tea break. Lovely. Neat and tidy. Obviously, that would never do. Not for cricket, and not on bizarroday. Instead of taking tea at the normal and fortuitously ideal time, it was shifted back almost two hours to 5.30pm because reasons.

When play resumed things got silly. Sillier. Runs were scored with indecent ease and the wind howled. Cricket having spent the first half of the summer worrying that bails were too heavy was now facing the problem of them being too light. With no suitable heavy bails to be found, play continued for a while with no bails at all while some nails were added to the existing ones. Magnificent.

The philosophical debate around the DRS implications for deliveries clipping bails that don’t exist sadly never had a real world test. It was probably for the best that the magnificent nip-backer Craig Overton produced to flick the top of off stump and finally remove Labuschagne occurred after the bails had been put through their homespun weight gain plan, although the sight of a Test match team appealing – and perhaps even reviewing – for bowled would have felt somehow apt today.

It was all good fun, but the lack of intensity made for a truly strange spectacle. It would be foolhardy to try and pinpoint a session where England let the Ashes slip after at least four such sessions came and went at Headingley, but it was nevertheless low-key disappointing to see them so passive after all the work that had gone into keeping the series alive.

But a day that started predictably ended similarly, with the players walking from the field for their late, late tea in what looked like and proved to be the final 10 playable minutes of the day and weren’t seen again after their sandwiches. Stumps was confirmed just after 6pm. Just as the rain stopped again. Cricket, we wouldn’t have you any other way.

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