It’s easy to get used to the idea of cricket as genteel. Especially in English grounds, with the hats and the cakes and the crust-off sandwiches, the way a Test match can burble along until it becomes a background to the catering.
The intervals, the rain breaks. The odd surge or swell, returning to the lull. The good night’s sleep before the next late-starting day.
And then a match that has damply pulsed for days can explode into gory visceral life, tearing through the caul to land fully birthed on the ward’s linoleum floor before scuttling off into the night.
That was what happened when Jofra Archer took on Steve Smith, and when Steve Smith took on Jofra Archer, on one dry day among a week of deluge. The duel thumped with a heartbeat. It emptied the bars. It ended with Smith face down in the dirt.
It was the kind of contest that shocks you back to attention; the kind that leaves you a bit sick with residues of adrenaline and excitement, the remains of lunch curdling in your gut, your hands trembling with delayed onset shock.
It was as intense as Test cricket can be, and a reminder that the game can be truly frightening.
Archer must have had one of the fastest sporting transitions from nobody to star. Suddenly, this May, he was seen as one of England’s key players for the World Cup and the Ashes, before having played an international match in either format.
He’s tall, straight, and so languid in his movements that he seems somehow molten. He pours through the crease and hits good lengths at 150 kilometres per hour. And by the time he was done with his final spell, he had sent down 29 overs out of England’s 81: well over a third of the bowling.
In his four overs on the second evening of the match, he mostly pitched up and found swing. In nine in a row before rain fell on day three, he went short at Cameron Bancroft’s body before going full to take his wicket.
On the fourth morning he bowled eight overs straight except for a change of ends. Yet it was only after lunch, with 21 overs under his belt, that things really got serious.
It started when he dislodged the stubborn Australian captain Tim Paine caught at bat pad, one of a fast bowler’s favourite dismissals. Then the sight of Pat Cummins, first of the tailenders and bowling rivals, began awakening Archer’s rage.
Short at 147 kph started the next over, flashed by Cummins through gully for three. A slower ball slipped past Smith’s edge before he turned over the strike. A mid-pace delivery was steered by Cummins for four. Now Archer was really mad, touching 150 clicks with the next two bouncers, one of which went swerving past the wicketkeeper for four byes.
At the same time a change came over the ground. Out of a sunny day a chill wind struck up. Heavy cloud dropped into place like a curtain falling. The setting suddenly matched the action.
One of the shortcomings of radar is that it measures the speed of the ball out of the hand. Short balls have less time to travel before hitting the ground, so they tend to read slower than full balls.
In London money, a bowler whose yorker reads 95 miles an hour might have a bouncer read at 88. Or 150 in new money might read closer to 140.
Archer’s short balls were coming up at 94 or 95 miles, 150 kilometres, per hour. And it wasn’t any fault of the technology. With human eyes at the ground they were absolutely scorching through.
Perhaps it was Smith’s dismissive slap of a 141 kph ball that really was the final straw. Archer cranked back up past 150 and got his line straighter. The third over of his spell ended by hitting Smith on the arm, lifting viciously from not far back of a length.
At first it seemed sure that Smith’s arm was broken. He’d been hit on the forearm near the elbow, where such blows can so easily cause fractures. He was in serious pain and had prolonged treatment, practicing his grip on the bat without being able to hold his top hand comfortably.
Cummins blocked out an over of spin, so it was Smith to face Archer again. This is where things got really interesting. Knowing what the type of attack would be, Smith took it right back to Archer. A swooping pull shot edged over the keeper for four. The next ball at over 150 clicks, but hooked as savagely for a single.
That over, CricViz reported, was the fastest ever recorded by an English bowler. It averaged 149.33 kph. His next, all to Cummins, was 148.04 kph.
The sixth over started with a bouncer at 147, which Smith took on again. With two catchers in the deep plus a backward square leg halfway back, he scooped his bat on an upward diagonal to lift it deliberately over the closer man for four.
This was crazy-brave batting, like Stan McCabe against Harold Larwood all those years ago. Recognising the threat and counterattacking it with the most audacious shot in the game.
But it couldn’t go on forever. Through all three of his innings in this Ashes, Smith had created an error-free zone. He had transcended mistakes, in a trancelike state, manic on the outside but entirely still within.
At last, England had found a crack to wind a tendril through, a way into the bubble. It was brutal, it was basic, but it was working. Smith was already rattled. He was batting wounded. A mistake which had once seemed impossible now seemed a matter of time.
It was easy to forget the match situation, but Smith was on 80 and his team was 55 runs behind when Archer touched 148 kph again. It wasn’t as short but it climbed. It was outside off stump but Smith was moving across. He couldn’t get down enough, and could only turn his head as it smashed him on the left side of his neck, under the ear.
In the first awful moment, he pitched face-first to the ground and there was genuine dread. A second later he moved his head, pushed his helmet off, rolled onto his back.
The crowd fell to a dead hush. When Smith had been hit in the arm they had exulted, baying for blood. Now that the prospect of blood had arrived they had lost their taste for it. That howl died in the throat, like a wolf down a canyon who hears something more than an echo coming back.
After a few deeply unpleasant minutes, he was back up on his feet, then arguing with the doctor be allowed to play on. Steve Smith through and through. Nor was it any surprise, after he retired hurt and Peter Siddle bought him 40 valuable minutes with the bat, that Smith was the next man back in.
The second chapter didn’t seem right. Smith had passed the concussion tests and insisted on returning, but surely no-one can be hit that hard near the skull and still be in a fit state to keep facing more of it.
He started against Chris Woakes with a mighty slog over midwicket, then the most gorgeous back-foot punch through cover, then a heave into his pad. He looked wobbly, not on his feet but in his decisions. It was like Pet Sematary: they come back, but they don’t come back the same.
An edge for four took him to 92 but signalled the end. Steve Smith, the man impossible to get out lbw, the invincible run-scorer off his pads, shouldered arms and watched Woakes hit him in front of middle stump. For a final flourish he signalled a DRS review and walked straight off the ground.
He hadn’t quite got his third century in as many innings. He wouldn’t be inscribed on the Lord’s honours board for a second time. He had got through one of the most wonderful, thrilling, brutal spells of fast bowling since the West Indies were king. He had created a memory from this Ashes to rival any before it.
And he had got Australia almost to parity, in that Test match that was forgotten while its most compelling session played out. He had given his bowlers time in the match, and had given England a nervy session to face.
Both sets of players delivered on that promise, with England four down by the close with a lead of 104. A Test with days lost to rain could yet have a result.
Whatever happens on its final day, though, the match will always be known for this: when the wind blew cold, and hands trembled, and the reigning master of one craft met the new master of another.