At lunch Lord’s looked exactly as you picture it in the dark days of winter. The sun was out, the sky was blue and the bars were buzzing with happy chatter. You wouldn’t have guessed it, then, but there was a storm coming in.
Australia were 103 runs behind, had five wickets in hand, and Steve Smith and Tim Paine were in the thick of a 50-run partnership. It felt as if England had 60 minutes left to win the Test. Then the tempest came. In the next hour Steve Smith, the best Test batsman of his generation, and Jofra Archer, the fastest bowler England have had in longer even than that, fought a duel we will be talking about as long as they are playing Ashes cricket.
When it was over, Smith walked off, wounded, 80 not out, with his bat flat behind him in the middle of the field, forgotten in the heat of the moment. Minutes earlier Archer had struck him on the neck with a bouncer, right behind his left ear, perilously close to the spot where Sean Abbott once hit Smith’s late teammate Phil Hughes, who died as a result.
In the split-second Smith fell down to the ground, no one gave a damn about who was winning or losing. The game had become, all of a sudden, a matter of life and death. Smith twitched off his helmet, rolled over on to his back, and, eventually, got back on to his feet, undefeated.
The atmosphere had started to crackle an hour earlier, when Archer had Paine caught at short leg in his first over after lunch. But the first bolt of lightning came when Smith hit a swashbuckling cover drive for four soon afterwards. Archer did not take to that, and the next ball was so short that it flew high over Smith’s head. The next one nipped back and smacked into his elbow. Archer was following through now, coming right down into Smith’s patch of the wicket. They are old teammates, these two, from their days playing with the Rajasthan Royals, but there was no warmth here, only fire.
Archer, who often seems almost to amble to the crease, was sprinting in now. He hit Smith again, badly this time, flush on the left forearm, in the spot where any sensible batsman would be wearing an armguard. For some reason Smith, so particular about his kit, did not have one on. It was a decision he might yet regret, if the injury turns out to be as serious as it looked. The physio wrapped his forearm in bandages, and Smith set himself to begin batting again.
Archer, every bit as pitiless as the Australian quicks have been to England’s batsmen in recent series, followed it up with another bouncer. Smith flapped at it madly, and it screwed away off the top edge over Jonny Bairstow’s head for four. It was the first rash shot Smith had played all innings, and a clear sign that Archer had him on the ropes. So Archer did what a good quick should do, and bounced him again. Smith shovelled the ball towards short fine leg. At the end of the over Archer fired his fastest ball yet, back of a length and at 96.1mph on the speedgun. Smith flinched at it, and it fell down in front of short leg.
There can’t have been many men who have ever bowled quicker for England. Old hands ticked off the possibles: Devon Malcolm, perhaps, against South Africa at the Oval in 1994, or Frank Tyson, on the 1954-55 Ashes tour. The bars were empty now, and the crowd was baying for more. Archer was into the sixth over of his spell, but bowling faster than he had all match. As soon as Smith was back on strike, he bounced him again. Smith threw another loose hook and the ball flew just past the fielder at backward square leg for four. And then it happened.
The next ball was another short one. Smith shaped to leave, but it was on him before he could do anything but turn his head. In that instant Lord’s fell as cold and quiet as a churchyard at midnight. Smith doesn’t wear the neck guards other players do, either; he had decided they are too uncomfortable. He twitched, and tugged off his helmet. Jos Buttler was the first to reach him, followed in short order by the other English players – except for Archer, who turned his back and bent down to rub his hands in the dirt.
Australia’s team doctor, Richard Saw, got Smith back to his feet. He ran him through the Maddocks test, a set of questions designed to check for symptoms of concussion. Smith clearly did not want to go off, but Saw insisted on it. No one booed him then, but, rather, a large part of the crowd rose in a standing ovation.
In the medical room Smith was given another set of tests. He passed them and was cleared to go back in, which he did when the next wicket fell, 40 minutes later. It was the strangest little innings he will ever play. He flogged one four through midwicket and slashed another through cover, but was utterly flummoxed by a straight ball in Chris Woakes’s next over.
Smith left it alone and it struck him flush in front of middle stump. He called for a review within a second, then turned and walked without waiting to see whether he was out or not. He seemed addled, by adrenaline, or emotion, or those three blows – who knows?
If he does have a delayed concussion, the laws allow Australia to use a like-for-like replacement. But in truth the only one of those died 18 years ago. And just as Don Bradman found his nemesis in Harold Larwood, so Smith has now, in Jofra Archer.