Smith still unconquered after latest Archer battle
The latest contest between Australia’s star batter and England’s new pace star was worth the wait
Andrew Ramsey at The Oval
14 September 2019, 07:41 AM AEST
In keeping with the feel of a languid, sun-drenched Friday at the end of the longest summer of international cricket that England has known, the main feature arrived an hour or so late.
There had been a bit of frivolous preamble to set the scene.
England's last couple of wickets hung about for almost half an hour, in which they snuck an extra 23 runs in the manner that tail-enders tend to do.
Then, Australia's haplessly out-of-form openers came and went in roughly the same time frame, for the combined addition of even fewer runs as has been their habit throughout a series in which the new Dukes ball was seemingly forged from kryptonite.
And so, shortly after midday and even before some in the sold-out crowd had tackled their first pint, Steve Smith was down the concrete steps from Australia's glass-fronted changeroom and into the middle where Jofra Archer waited.
Distractedly tossing the ball with which he'd already removed David Warner and Marcus Harris from right hand to left, spinning it sharply backwards from his long, slender fingers.
It was an unfamiliar environment into which Smith strode.
Not so much the game situation, given the only time he's walked to the wicket during this series with more than 50 runs on the board, and more than 10 overs of wear on the ball, was in the second match at Lord's.
Which was also where Archer felled him with a blow to the neck from a frightening short ball, that put the former Australia skipper on the deck and out of the subsequent Test at Leeds.
Rather, today's unfamiliarity stemmed from the brilliant sunlight that greeted him, causing him to squint into the brightness and increasing the pain in his already throbbing temples.
Most of the 751 runs he's now scored at an absurd average of 125 during this series have come amid low cloud, the threat of rain and – on several occasions – under the artificial glare of stadium floodlights.
But in addition to a burst of Indian summer, Friday in south London brought a further unfamiliarity that had nothing to do with the ambient conditions or rampant opposition.
"I've been struggling a bit today," Smith would later reveal.
"I've got a bit of a flu. but I was loading up on the Codral Cold and Flu (medication) throughout the day, and just tried to stay as focused as I could be."
Archer admitted at day's end that, as Smith's latest innings stretched from three hours into four and then beyond, the world's top-ranked batter didn't quite seem his usual self.
But that was not yet evident when Archer let fly his opening delivery, a searing bouncer to sharply remind his foe that he had, indeed, been there before.
If Archer wasn't convinced that reprise of the delivery that flattened Smith at Lord's had rattled his quarry, the crowd surely were when the next ball pitched full and the world's best batter – feet set as if in concrete – aimed an airy drive that yielded no contact, but raucous cheering.
The main game was afoot, and both lead actors immediately warmed to their roles.
When Smith finally found the middle of his overworked bat and drilled a defensive punch back to the bowler, Archer gathered the ball and hurled it theatrically at the stumps even though his rival had barely shifted from his crease.
Smith, in return, shot the England fast man a fleeting, quizzical look.
Another bouncer followed, which Smith avoided by dipping his left shoulder towards the pitch as Archer cranked up his bowling speed to around 150km/h.
The pair's duel was an edge-of-the-seat stalemate that lasted 16 deliveries before Smith was finally able to score a run – three of them in fact, as he knocked Archer towards the cover boundary.
The individual battle between Archer and Smith has been the most compelling sub-plot of this wildly fluctuating series.
While much of that drama has built from the blow that Archer landed on the otherwise impervious Smith at Lord's, it is compounded by the pair's contrasting on-field character.
Smith's endless fidgeting and perpetual motion are, by his own admission, "strange" and he is so pernickety about the way everything looks and feels he was demonstrably grateful on Friday when umpire Marais Erasmus alerted him to some imperfection in the way his left arm-guard was fitted.
Archer, by comparison, is laid-back to the point of sometimes appearing uninterested, an aura that is clearly at odds with his fearsome bowling and remarkable Test record after just three and a bit games.
Where Smith is all flapping arms and extravagant bat waves, Archer breaks into his 12-pace run-up from nothing more than a ponderous amble and keeps his elbows so tightly tucked to his wiggling hips that it seems he learned to bowl in some narrow passageway.
Yet, there are distinct similarities that betray their shared, innate competitiveness.
After bowling a pair of maidens at Smith, Archer was so unhappy when the ex-Australia captain scored runs that he muttered beneath his breath and shook his head throughout the waddle back to the top of his mark.
Similarly, when Smith's famous problem-solving skills were tested by the appearance (for the first time in the series) of left-arm swing bowler Sam Curran, he furiously re-enacted the trajectory of a couple of deliveries that slammed into his pads by flicking his arm and walking away towards square leg.
The computer that Steve Waugh has likened Smith's peerless cricket acumen to was receiving new data, and apparently in need of a re-boot.
That, to Archer, was the clue that something had gone slightly amiss with Australia's batting 'robot'.
"To be honest, he didn’t look himself today," Archer noted having finished with 6-62, but not Smith's scalp.
"It might just be my perception of it, but I just think he didn’t look as nailed on as he usually (does).
When told that Smith claimed to be suffering from 'flu, Archer smiled broadly and said: "Genuine?"
"Well, fair enough. I knew there was something."
But what most bemused Archer, and led him to question what he regards as Smith's unnatural good fortune as much as his incomparable batting skills, was the third spell he aimed at his rival beginning immediately after tea.
Archer started his salvo with two fast, nasty bouncers that Smith avoided, and then a third short-pitched ball that was parried awkwardly into the air to backward square leg where it fell safely between two advancing fielders.
Two overs later, Smith was squared-up by a delivery that Archer got to leap from outside off stump and it met the splice of the bat only to balloon where no fielders were lurking on the other side of the wicket.
A third occasion soon after saw Smith unaware of where the ball had travelled when Archer struck the shoulder of his blade, but again it had landed on the leg-side near pitch's edge and far from any England catchers.
"It's weird because every time he bats, I don’t know what it is, but he literally cannot get out," Archer noted with a rueful grin at day's end, after Smith had scored 80 and was ultimately dismissed by medium-pacer Chris Woakes.
"The ball just lands, especially if he plays a bad shot, in no-man's land - for the whole series.
"Obviously he's a good batter, he's got good temperament, but I don’t know what it is.
"The ball never goes to hand."
For his part, an under-the-weather Smith was equally lukewarm about the prospect of his rivalry with Archer stretching into future Ashes campaigns and becoming a highlight of all upcoming Australia-England battles in other formats.
While the battles the pair have waged since Archer arrived in Test cricket like a comet on that grey second evening at Lord's have been undoubtedly epic, clearly no great rapport exists between them.
As Smith has observed more than once, Archer might have knocked him down and out (of a Test and a half), but he's not yet dismissed him in a Test match.
Asked if he was excited about the prospect of locking horns with 24-year-old Archer over series and tournaments to come, 30-year-old Smith played a typically straight bat but without any accompanying extravagance or flourish.
"Who knows? When is the next Ashes series? Will I still be playing? I am not sure, who knows the answer to that," Smith said cryptically, as if deliberately dousing any talk of an ongoing individual match-up.
"He (Archer) is a quality performer.
"He has two five-fors in four Test matches, and you don't get guys bowling 90 miles per hour growing on trees.
"With the skill set he has got, he is a terrific bowler.
"There is no doubt he will take a lot of confidence from his first Ashes series … and he has a very bright future."
What Archer doesn't yet have, with one bowling innings remaining of his first Ashes campaign, is the wicket of Steve Smith.
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), Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jack Leach, Craig Overton, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Chris Woakes.
First Test: Australia won by 251 runs at Edgbaston
Second Test: Match drawn at Lord's
Third Test: England won by one wicket at Headingley
Fourth Test: Australia won by 185 runs at Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval