Valiant Smith shines, fearsome Archer snarls on thrilling day
Second Test in the balance after Smith and Archer's battle for the ages, with England holding a 104-run lead at stumps on a remarkable fourth day
Andrew Ramsey at Lord's
18 August 2019, 06:00 AM AEST
Having landed a rare knockout blow on Steve Smith, England copped a flurry of punches in the final session to leave the second Ashes Test on a knife's edge after four rain-laden days at Lord's.
England enter the final day, for which the forecast is mostly fine, holding a lead of 104 with six wickets available and no certainty that Smith will be available to bat in the second innings.
The stand-out player of the series to date was cleared of a fracture to his badly bruised arm, and while he was also given the all clear to resume batting after suffering a frightening hit to his neck, he will continue to be monitored for symptoms of delayed concussion.
With a minimum of 98 overs available on Sunday, England resume at 4-96 and potentially eyeing sufficient runs in the morning session to let them push for a last-gasp win while Australia retain hopes of running through the middle and lower orders without conceding too large a target.
While that scorecard might appear suitably sobering heading into Sunday at Lord's, it might have been substantially worse had Australia snared all the chances their rampant bowlers created in the last hours.
As it was, seamers Pat Cummins and Peter Siddle each landed telling combination punches to leave the hosts seemingly unsure of whether to push hard in search of a lead they might be able to defend come day five, or simply survive in such daunting batting conditions.
Cummins made the initial incision, casting further doubts over Jason Roy's suitability as a Test opener when he offered a soft return catch having scored only two, and then sent back Joe Root for the first golden duck of the England captain's otherwise gilded 83-Test career.
Siddle then struck twice in consecutive overs, tricking Joe Denly into offering an equally lame caught and bowled, and then having England's most poised top-order player Rory Burns caught behind from a gem of a delivery that bounced and shaped away late from the obdurate left-hander.
Amongst those successes, however, three chances went perilously close but begging to David Warner at slip – a low offering by Denly off Siddle, and two from Ben Stokes in the course of an over from Nathan Lyon that flew either side of the solitary slipper.
In addition, two appeals for lbw from Lyon were turned down and not reviewed, although the ball-tracking vision subsequently aired on television suggested both of them (against Burns on 26 and Stokes on six) would have hit the stumps.
All of that frantic, final-session drama would have remained the talking point on a regular day of cricket – which today at Lord's clearly was not.
A Test match that had struggled to catch alight during two days of stubborn London rain exploded into incandescence after lunch of day four, and may yet deliver an unlikely result.
The stars that burned brightest on an unforgettable afternoon were Smith and Cummins, alongside England's pace pair Jofra Archer and Stuart Broad.
However, it was the duel between Smith and Archer that took the Lord's crowd to the edge of their seats and then – suddenly, sickeningly – to silence, effectively lighting the touch paper midway through the day.
Prior to lunch, Australia had dug in against some unrelenting England bowling on a dry pitch that has challenged every batter due to the exaggerated movement that manifests through the air when clouds gather, and off the surface at all times.
The ball from Broad that accounted for Matthew Wade – the sole Australian wicket to fall in the morning session, after the visitors resumed 178 runs adrift at 4-80 – encapsulated the difficulties that batters continue to encounter.
With England's senior quick operating round the wicket, Wade pressed cautiously forward to a full delivery angled into his stumps only to have it jag off the pitch like a fast off-break.
A player in poorer form than the Edgbaston century-maker might have easily failed to make contact such was the degree of deviation, but despite Wade's effort to play late and with minimal force the resultant edge flew low to gully.
Smith and Tim Paine then endured a searching hour and half until lunch, in which they added 53 runs against an all-pace attack led by Archer whose eight impressive overs had cost him 10 runs and multiple near-misses.
That Archer took the 65-overs-old ball immediately after lunch proved no surprise, with Root having clearly flagged that he saw the 24-year-old playing in his first Test as England's principal weapon.
That assessment was proved unerring in the Barbadian-born quick's first over post-lunch when he jagged a ball back into Paine which the Australia skipper squeezed on to his thigh pad, and then the waiting catcher at short-leg.
Then began one of the most compelling individual battles in recent Ashes history, as Archer operated unchanged from the Pavilion End for more than an hour, and seemed to find extra bounce and more frightening pace with each languid approach to the wicket.
The final delivery of his 24th over – his third over after the adjournment – caught the usually flawless Smith in two minds and, between trying to defend and take evasive action, he found it too late to do either and was struck flush on the left arm.
Given the limb was protected only by a toweling sweat band affixed near his elbow – and the ball hit him below that nominal buffer anyway – the pain that Smith bravely tried to hide soon became palpable.
Unable to grip his bat, he was attended to by medical staff for minutes as a padded guard was fitted retrospectively, and painkillers were administered.
With Archer and most of the Lord's crowd sensing Australia's best batter (then 70 not out) was wounded and shaken, the fast bowler went after his quarry with a series of searing short balls.
To the first of those, Smith aimed a combative swing that flew from his bat's top edge over the head of wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow and bouncing over the boundary rope.
The next was spooned into vacant space behind square leg as a disbelieving Archer then focused on Cummins, who dug out a fierce yorker, then survived a highly speculative review for a catch behind, and almost bunted a catch to bat-pad.
Archer started his next over with another bouncer that Smith pulled unconvincingly over the fielder positioned strategically at leg-gully, and then put the ex-Australia captain down on the pitch and seemingly out of the match after he took a harrowing blow on the left side of his neck.
With Smith retired hurt for 80, and the new ball due in less than four overs, it seemed likely that Archer might have been given a breather and a chance to gather his thoughts after such a traumatic start to his Test tenure.
But Root persisted with his strike bowler, who did not take another wicket for the remainder of the innings but had landed undoubtedly the most telling hit.
The additional batting practice that Australia's bowlers have been undertaking during this series then brought another sizeable dividend, not so much in runs scored but in time consumed.
Tailenders Cummins (20 in 137 minutes), Siddle (nine in 40 minutes) and Nathan Lyon (six in 28 minutes) lifted their team's tally from 6-203 when Smith was felled, to 250 all out – a deficit of just eight runs.
But the most important moment of a day that fairly crackled with them came when Smith re-appeared on the Long Room steps and then re-entered the arena less than an hour after he had regained his feet but been withdrawn from the heat of battle.
For an instant or two – most memorably when he aimed a hefty swing at Chris Woakes that sent the ball to the mid-wicket boundary – it seemed the crazy-brave ex-captain would complete the most stunning of his myriad Test hundreds to date.
An innings that even those flint-hearted souls who booed him back on to Lord's might have felt compelled to stand and applaud.
But he lost his wicket on 92, so clearly lbw to Woakes that the call for a review he apologetically made before turning to walk off owed more to reality television shows where audience votes can prevent a beloved character's exit than a request to the third umpire in a Test match.
It would, if successful, also have delivered a storyline almost too fanciful for a day that produced more twists than fiction writers dare contemplate.
Australia XI: David Warner, Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Matthew Wade, Tim Paine (c/wk), Pat Cummins, Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood
England XI: Rory Burns, Jason Roy, Joe Root (c), Joe Denly, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Chris Woakes, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, Jack Leach
Session times (all times local):
First session: 11am-1pm
Second session: 1.40pm-4.10pm
Third session: 4.30pm-6.30pm
2019 Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
England squad: Joe Root (c), Moeen Ali, Jimmy Anderson, Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Olly Stone, Chris Woakes.
First Test: Australia beat England by 251 runs at Edgbaston
Second Test: August 14-18,Lord's
Third Test: August 22-26, Headingley
Tour match: Australians v Derbyshire, August 29-31
Fourth Test: September 4-8, Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval