STEVE SMITH Picture: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
An unbeaten Steve Smith is eyeing another ton and remains "one step ahead" of England, having picked up where he left off while marching Australia to 3-170 at stumps on day one of the fourth Ashes Test at Old Trafford.
Smith, who finished 60 not out after Tim Paine opted to bat on Wednesday, frustrated the hosts with the help of some wet and windy weather.
The start of the post-lunch session, which featured gusts so strong that umpires briefly opted to play without bails because they kept falling off, was delayed by 140 minutes because of heavy rain.
The showers returned at tea, prompting umpires to abandon hope of further play on day one.
Smith, playing his first Test since suffering a delayed concussion that forced him to miss day five at Lord's then the entire third Test, donned a clip-on neck guard for the first time in a match.
But otherwise there was no discernible change, as the former skipper vowed would be the case after being struck on the neck by a Jofra Archer bouncer at the home of cricket.
The superstar, who reclaimed top spot on the International Cricket Council's batting charts from Virat Kohli on match eve despite his stint on the sidelines, ducked bouncers and scored freely alongside Marnus Labuschagne in a 116-run stand.
Smith and Labuschagne (67) steadied after Stuart Broad removed both openers in a superb opening spell.
Recalled paceman Craig Overton snapped the partnership with a cracking delivery, which swung in then seamed off the deck and clipped the top of Labuschagne's off stump, to leave the game in the balance as both teams hunt a 2-1 series lead.
Smith, as was the case in the opening two Tests, remains the key.
The right-hander refused to let any bowler find rhythm, manoeuvring the ball into gaps and dispatching anything loose to the rope.
"How he changes - different guards, the way he bats, different pre-movements (for different bowlers) - I think that's what makes him the best in the world," Labuschagne gushed.
"He's always kind of one step ahead and thinking ahead, not being reactive.
"Which makes him very hard to bowl to.
"It's been a pretty good day for us. It was tough conditions (for batting and bowling)."
Smith passed 50 with an audacious boundary off Ben Stokes, reaching so far for the delivery he almost dived to complete the off-balance cover drive.
Overton, who dismissed Smith on Test debut at Adelaide Oval in 2017, remained confident England could capture the prized scalp early on Thursday.
"He's obviously a world-class player," Overton said.
"He's always going to be difficult but we've got our plans.
"We're probably slightly behind but we felt the conditions weren't quite with us ... a couple of early ones tomorrow and we'll be right back in the game."
Tempers frayed as the bails and swirling chip packets caused multiple delays, with Broad and Overton both fuming at Labuschagne for pulling out during the bowler's run-up.
Overton and Labuschagne both described the situation as "frustrating".