After Steve Smith single-handedly pummeled England at Edgbaston, the hosts had to come up with a different game-plan at Lord’s, and they had the option of bringing in different personnel as well because of the injury to James Anderson.
Given the fact that Jofra Archer had been in red hot form this English summer and he proved his fitness as well recently in the county circuit in the lead up to the second test, it was a no-brainer for England to pick him to replace Anderson.
Archer has got pace, but the pace doesn't intimidate Smith. Owing to the fact that he picks the length quickly and is always back and across, he has all the time in the world to handle the speed of the ball.
Rather than trying to intimidate Smith with Archer’s pace, what was ideal for England was to bowl the correct line to him, something that they had not done at Edgbaston. They had bowled too straight at Edgbaston.
Smith, because he shuffles across on every delivery, is very comfortable playing the straight line. It's only when the bowler bowls it a little wide outside the off stump, close to the 5th stump line, that Smith finds it difficult to deal with.
England turned up at Lord’s with a 100% correct game-plan. They bowled the 5th stump line to Smith for a decent period of time to try and nick him off, but Smith figured out the game-plan and rather than getting frustrated and falling into it, he started exaggerating his movements while leaving the ball to the keeper to frustrate the English bowlers.
Smith was leaving the balls in a manner never seen before and with those exaggerated movements, he successfully managed to divert the English bowlers from their game-plan a few times. However, still, in comparison to Edgbaston, England remained disciplined with their line to Smith for a major part of the 3rd and the 4th day and didn’t let him run away with the game.
But, while Smith wasn’t running away with the game, England’s game-plan was still not working as Smith was not nicking anything behind the stumps despite shuffling so much across and having to tackle the relentless 5th stump line.
England captain Joe Root, at last, decided to intimidate Smith with Archer’s pace and that’s where the battle for the ages began. The fine leg and the square leg fielders were both pushed deep and Archer was left with one job - bowl fast and target Smith's body.
It was a gamble. It could have leaked a lot of runs as Smith is very strong on the pull shot. However, he was up against Archer, who was bowling at a rapid pace and was constantly hitting the 155 kph mark.
Archer ran in and hit an impeccable line and length. Everything was either back of a length or short and the Barbadian was getting the ball to rise steeply.
Smith got hit quite a few times on his body, but he still wasn’t rattled. That spell, however, was getting increasingly difficult as not only was Archer refusing to relent, the unstable bounce was a matter of concern.
Eventually, Archer managed to get on Smith’s nerves as one of his deliveries hit Smith flush on his forearm. The ball didn’t rise as much from the back of a length as Smith was expecting it to and he had to take it on his body as he was in no position to respond with a shot.
That gave Archer an edge in the battle right there, that blow hurt Smith quite badly.
It also convinced Smith that he would have to take Archer on and he couldn’t just see him off as the up and down bounce of the pitch would get him at some stage if he just looked to survive.
So, despite the fine leg back and the square leg also fairly deep from its normal position, Smith decided to pull Archer and in his attempt to get into the right position for the pull, he started shuffling across even more than he usually does.
He nailed a pull through square leg, but Archer knew Smith wasn’t comfortable. The 24-year old Archer put the foot on the gas and the pace only increased. It was a battle of the highest standard. Everybody knew what was happening, the batsman knew what was coming and the bowler knew the batsman was aware of his plan. Yet, It was all down to the skills.
As it turned out, Archer had one up over Smith. The Australian was very conscious of the short ball that he failed to judge a back of a length delivery out of Archer’s hand, something that was shocking.
Yet, because Archer had got on his nerves at that point, he was positioning himself only for the pull and by the time he realized the length wasn’t there for the pull on that delivery, it was too late. He couldn’t get himself out of the way of the ball. All he could do was to turn his head across and it hit him on the side of his head, almost on his neck.
It was round about the same area where Phil Hughes was hit. Smith was down the moment it hit him and a shiver ran down everybody’s spine. It was frightening. Amidst all of this, Archer didn’t have any sympathies to offer to Smith. He was so indulged in the heat of the battle that he just went back to his bowling mark, ready to blast another one up to Smith’s head.
It didn’t take Smith much time to get up either despite the brute of a blow he had just taken and as Archer was ready at his bowling mark, Smith was ready as well, to put his body on the line again. It was as intense as it could get in a professional sport. But the umpires had to go by the ICC guidelines.
Despite Smith’s insistence to stay out there, they vetoed him out of the ground, with an urgent need to get him checked for a concussion. Smith was off.
However, ten minutes later, he was in the front row of the Australian team’s gallery, with his pads on, ready to walk back at the fall of the next wicket. It was unbelievable. The lad had just been brutally hit on a body part which could have easily landed him in a hospital bed, but he wasn’t backing off. He was never going to back off.
As Peter Siddle edged one to Jonny Bairstow, Smith was out on the ground again. The Australian medical staff had cleared him of any concussion and the umpires, therefore, couldn’t stop him from taking the field.
England weren’t going to relent either. Joe Root signaled Archer to warm up as soon as Smith came back. Smith, on the other hand, decided to make a statement that he wasn’t frightened any bit as he absolutely thumped Chris Woakes over midwicket and then punched him through the off side next ball to precisely pierce the gap between cover and mid-off.
A third consecutive hundred was on the horizon even as an Archer spell was incoming, but just as the battle could reach its climax, it turned out to be an anticlimax. Smith, just eight away from what could have been the most sensational hundred of all time, was trapped in front of the wickets by Woakes.
As the rock of Australia's batting unit made his way to the pavilion, the entire Australian dressing room was on its feet. A small fraction of the Australian crowd was clapping as hard as they could, while the huge English crowd in the stadium was booing Smith. The charismatic battle had come to an end. It was Test cricket at its brutal best.
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