An abrasive Old Trafford surface offers Nathan Lyon the opportunity to retain the Ashes for Australia for the first time in 18 years.
In a series littered with compelling redemption narratives, the situation gives Lyon a way to ‘redeem’ himself in a purely sporting sense after his late fumble gifted England victory in the third Test.
Should he bowl Australia to victory, the heartache that lingered after Leeds will be but a distant memory.
Just 44 overs were bowled on day one after a cold and windy Manchester added rain to its repertoire after lunch, coming and going in spurts before stumps was eventually called with Australia 3/170.
Stuart Broad reduced the Aussies to 2/28 before the returning Steve Smith and in-form Marnus Labuschagne were then largely untroubled in a 116-run stand, the Queenslander eventually undone by a brilliant seaming delivery from Craig Overton that clipped the top of off stump.
Any doubts over Smith were allayed early as the world’s number one batsman duck and weaved effectively to Jofra Archer. An indicator of Smith’s sharp focus was when Stuart Broad, aided by a strong cross breeze, fired one into the Australian’s pads when he was on just four.
The effort-ball swung in and would have been almost certainly been out lbw but, in customary Smith fashion, he shuffled across, whipping it through midwicket for three. Broad stood with familiar astonishment, but he had been in that position before – he should have known.
Smith was back.
Aside from the return of Australia’s batting maestro, the opening session of play gave us a strong indicator of what we’re likely to see in the coming days.
After just 15 overs, TV close-ups showed the new ball had visible scuff marks on it owing to the abrasive nature of the Old Trafford pitch and outer square. While that’s not uncommon this late in the English summer, it is inconsistent with the first three Tests, which kept the shine on both sides for far longer periods.
This distinct dryness, as such, should offer increased turn as the Test match progresses. Jack Leach was able to get some grip and turn, catching and then beating the edge of a prodding Marnus Labuschagne in the 19th over. This was, it must be remembered, barely an hour into the first session of a day one pitch. Lyon, meanwhile, was licking his lips.
In the protracted buildup to the test, reports reiterated that Old Trafford boasted the quickest pitch in the country. But this did not eventuate on the opening day. And while it may well quicken up on days two or three, what is clear is that its abrasive nature will bring the spinners into the game for the entire Test match.
And given Australia will bowl last on the surface, Lyon all of a sudden becomes the most important player in its quest to finally taste success on English shores. His shot at ‘redemption’ in Manchester is in the purely sporting sense of the term, unlike that of Ben Stokes and Steve Smith.
Lyon’s only sin was fumbling a ball he should have taken, granting England a lifeline they duly took advantage of.
Nevertheless he, along with his Australian teammates, were justifiably distraught at the result, and Lyon will feel the need to repay them.
Australian fans yet to catch up with the events of last week at Headingley were graciously taken care of by the Nine Network last night.
As rain delayed play post lunch, the network’s thoughtful producers decided to replay the closing stages of the Test as Stokes and Leach (spoiler alert) combined to see England home.
Forcing myself to rewatch the closing stages, eyelids open Clockwork Orange style, it was striking that the only time Ricky Ponting’s brilliant, measured commentary wavered was after Lyon’s inopportune fumble. “Lyon, take the ball! Take the bails off!’ He cried reflexively.
Even the professionals are still fans at heart, no?
But even Stokes says the third Test now must be forgotten. And the man hoping to forget it most is perhaps the one who can have the final say.