This year’s Ashes series has delivered in a big way. Following on from the ludicrously brilliant World Cup just weeks before, it has more than matched it for melodrama.
Amid all the varying narratives, sub-plots and questions to ponder across this summer’s series, the ongoing and ever-increasing battle between Jofra Archer and Steve Smith stands out above all else.
Those watching, whether in the stadium of their sitting room, above all else, want to see Archer bowl at Smith. They want to see the stars take centre stage, staring each other down after every interaction.
At the moment, fans are revelling in the fact there are two rivals, at the peak of their powers, facing off against each other. No sport can offer these direct battles between individuals, played out within a team sport, in the way that cricket can.
Right now, Smith is the best batsman in the world. Virat Kholi is an obvious alternative to that argument, but given what Smith has done in this series thus far, and the Indian’s recent wobble against the West Indies, the Aussies wouldn’t swap him for anyone. “Form” doesn’t even seem to do it justice, he is so locked in, it’s as if he’s playing a different game to those around him.
And yet. Approaching him is a man with a sedate saunter, which then delivers searing out-and-out, genuinely frightening pace. Clocking speeds north of 95mph, there is nothing like Archer out there at the moment.
It seems ridiculous to think of where Archer was on people’s consciousness six months ago, or that people were unsure about his inclusion in the England set-up before the summer began.
Given what he’s achieved in his short international career thus far, it’s hard to imagine a more pivotal introduction to an England side ever, in any sport. Maybe Jason Robinson’s switch from rugby league to union, but even that had a couple of years between his arrival and a World Cup win.
And while Archer is a new threat to the Australians, when it comes to Smith, England have been here before.
In his last seven Tests against England, the Aussie averages 133. In this series it’s 126, and he’s scored more runs than anyone on either side (378), despite playing one Test less. When he made centuries in both innings at Edgbaston, England well and truly ran out of ideas. It looked as though that would continue at Lord’s until Archer took the ball and produced a terrifying spell of fast bowling.
It was Archer’s ball that caught Smith on the neck. It was just about the only ball Smith has misjudged all series and the resulting concussion forced him off the field. There was a brief cameo, when Smith returned to the field of play to smash three more fours, before he was finally trapped lbw by Chris Woakes.
Reassuringly for fans of both teams, while Smith may have been absent from Headingley, the rivalry has continued to simmer along nicely.
Smith said: “There’s been a bit of talk that he’s got the wood over me, but he [Archer] hasn’t actually got me out.
“He hit me on the head on a wicket that was a bit up and down at Lord’s. All the other bowlers have had more success against me, I daresay. I’ve faced them a bit more, but they’ve all got me out a lot more.”
Archer, of course, responded: “Well, I can’t get him out if he wasn’t there.”
As soon as Smith takes to the field at Old Trafford, you know Archer will want the ball. You also know that Joe Root will give it to him. Given how the players are playing, the best thing about it is that there’s just as much chance as Smith cracking it into the covers as there is Archer dismantling off stump.
It’s not even just the fans awaiting the inevitable fireworks. When asked about the matchup, Archer’s partner in England’s attack, Stuart Broad, said: “That sort of cricket is awesome to watch on the telly or from the stands but when you’re stood at mid-on, it’s pretty special. Hopefully we can have a battle like that again.”
Broad may have one of the best seats in the house, but regardless, the stage is set for both protagonists, and they’re revelling in it. Long may it continue.
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