Michael Clarke hardly put a foot wrong as Australia built towards the tantalising lead that will give them a target to defend in their bid to keep the Ashes series alive.
Yes, he contributed to Steve Smith’s run-out when he failed to respond to the whippet’s call for a second run. Smith covered nearly three pitch lengths to his partner’s one and was only a desperate lunge short of making his ground when James Anderson had a rare success with ball in hand.
But Clarke could be forgiven for his reluctance to leave port with tea approaching almost as quickly as the Manchester mizzle. And he could hardly be blamed for failing to convince umpires Tony Hill and Marais Erasmus that the late afternoon Old Trafford murk was fit for play.
Having the Barmy Army trumpeter blowing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”, as he did so evocatively on the last day at The Oval in 2005, did little to enhance Clarke’s cause.
But his biggest victory was the restoration of David Warner to the opening position. Warner has only twice in his career failed to take guard first – in the second innings in Chennai this year, when a desperate Australia rejigged their top order, and in the first innings of this match.
“I know exactly where I’ll bat Davey Warner if he’s picked in the team,” Clarke said on the eve of the third Test.
It is fair to suggest that Clarke was thinking of No 6, because that was where he sent out the fiery left-hander. Yet come the first sign of drama and Australia had no hesitation in sending for the cavalry to open the batting.
Warner responded with a fluent 41 that showcased his ease against the new ball, apart from a whack on the left thumb and a contentious caught behind appeal, and provided the Australian brains trust with significant food for thought.
It is not as if preferred openers Shane Watson and Chris Rogers are not suited to the task. It is just that Warner’s technique and temperament make him the best opener and that the team appears to be a lesser combination with him forced to wait for his chance at combat.
The success of Warner’s return, mixed as it may be with scores of just five and 41, brings into question the decision to suspend him for the Ashes warm-up matches, as well as the Champions Trophy, after his blue with Joe Root in a Birmingham bar.
Warner may have deserved his penalty; he may even have been lucky to avoid being sent home as Cricket Australia chief executive, James Sutherland, suggested. The decision by former Victorian county court judge Gordon Lewis to ban Warner until the start of the first Test was neither one thing nor another.
If his crime was so heinous, surely the penalty required him to be sent home or sacked? But if it wasn’t, why prevent him from preparing properly for the biggest event on the Australian stage?
Clarke employed three left-handers in the top three, then followed them with four righties. The thinking was clear – he wanted to negate Graeme Swann’s influence on a pitch starting to spit and considered it easier for the right-handers to start against a ball spinning into them.
The left-handers at the top might be able to get settled before Swann came on, though that tactic became academic when the spinner was introduced in the seventh over. Usman Khawaja lofted Swann down the ground, Watson clouted once or twice and Smith lifted two towering straight sixes.
It would have paid to have been a fly on Darren Lehmann’s shoulder before play when he had a lengthy and intense conversation with champion leg-spinner Shane Warne. Warne is one of Lehmann’s closest confidants and an informal consultant to the team.
Their chat may have been about Australia’s spin woes, which are clearly mounting after Nathan Lyon’s battle to break through in the helpful conditions.
But it may equally have been about the best means to set up a push for victory when time and the elements are enemies.
Warne and Lehmann have always preached the value of a positive mindset and aggressive approach to the game. Clarke is from their school. An Australian victory might not be possible today but he knows a draw is no worse than a loss and will risk plenty to gain all.
John Townsend is Cricket Writer at ‘The West Australian’Reuse content