MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Steve Smith continued his outstanding Ashes form, striking an unbeaten 60 as Australia recovered from a bad start to reach 170-3 at the close of the rain-affected first day of the fourth test against England at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Rain caused a frustrating delay of over two hours after lunch but plans to extend play were abandoned after rain came in again during the break for tea and only 44 overs were bowled on the opening day.
Gusty winds throughout, with the bails even taken off by the umpires at one stage, made it hard work for England’s seamers while the batsmen had the distraction of stray food wrappers and even a beach ball fluttering over the square,
The stoppages and conditions, though, did little to disrupt Smith, who returning from missing the last test due to concussion looked like he had never been away as he made his eighth straight Ashes half-century.
The series is tied a 1-1 with two tests remaining and victory for the Australians would ensure they retain the urn.
Smith and Marnus Labuschagne put on 116 for the third wicket before the latter was bowled by a beautiful delivery from Craig Overton for 67.
It was a much-needed stand after England, on a high after their remarkable comeback win at Headingley, made a great start, bringing their supporters to their feet with just the fourth ball of the day, after Australia won the toss and opted to bat.
Stuart Broad claimed the wicket of David Warner for the fifth time in this series with the left-hander caught behind as he made a belated decision to leave the ball but gave a thin outside edge to Jonny Bairstow.
Australia slipped to 28-2 when Broad rapped the pads of Marcus Harris and, after some consideration, umpire Kumar Dharmasena raised his finger and his verdict was upheld by video review.
Australia’s openers have averaged 15.14 – not since 1888 have their top two contributed less during an Ashes series.
The departure of Harris brought the returning Smith to the crease after 38 minutes of play, the world’s number one-ranked test batsman having missed the previous test due to concussion as a result of being hit on the neck by a Jofra Archer bouncer.
To the delight of the crowd, Archer had the ball in hand and it took him three deliveries to attempt another bouncer.
But with England sensing a chance to eat into the Aussie middle order before lunch, Smith and Labuschagne quickly settled and set about upping the run-rate as Archer found it hard to generate his customary pace.
Labuschagne, retained in the side after replacing Smith as a substitute for the second innings at Lord’s and at Headingley, went on to make his fourth straight half century.
“It was tough to get used to (the weather) and get consistent with your movements because it was so windy and there were so many distractions around the ground,” Labuschagne told reporters.
“It doesn’t really matter how you get the runs, it’s just about the score. It was important for us to dig in and get a first-innings score because there’s some spin out there and it’s really good for us,” he added.
Ominously for England, Smith, who has two centuries and a 92 to his name in the series, looked unruffled as he calmly dealt with Joe Root’s attack.
He brought up his fifty, lavishly driving Ben Stokes for four through cover but the Manchester weather ensured the prospect of a third ton in the series will have to wait.
Travis Head was unbeaten on 18 at the close and England will need to make another positive start on Thursday, if they are to restrict the touring side.
“Obviously, it was a frustrating day for us, conditions didn’t really suit running into bowl but we stuck at it pretty well,” said Overton, who was making his home test debut after being drafted in ahead of Chris Woakes.
“We’re probably slightly behind...but we come back tomorrow, get a couple of early ones and we’ll be right back in the game.”
Reporting by Simon Evans,; Editing by Ed Osmond