Honours even in exhilarating heavyweight bout
Champion Smith against rookie Archer provided an Ashes battle for the ages and a potentially defining moment for the series
Andrew Ramsey at Lord's
18 August 2019, 09:12 AM AEST
It's an integral part of Lord's marketing mystique that the venue regarded as cricket's home and staunch upholder of the game's spirit is more genteel manners, and less general hoi polloi than your average sporting stadium.
But for an hour or so on Saturday afternoon, Lord's became one of those Nevada casinos or cash-drained fiefdoms that habitually host heavyweight boxing bouts as an acknowledged batting champ went a series of brutal rounds with a young, untried challenger.
The former was obviously Steve Smith, renowned as much for his dancing feet and unorthodox ring craft as for the power and timing of his hits, while the upstart looking to knock loose his crown was Jofra Archer in his first fight in the top division.
And even though a Lord's audience – which famously emits a knowing buzz rather than rollicking choruses – would never allow itself to be heard baying for blood, there was a tangible shift in mood when Archer went after Smith in the session after lunch on Saturday.
As England allrounder Chris Woakes put it, in distinctly un-Lord's terms, the sight of an England fast bowler working over the best player in a rival team so ruthlessly and clinically led many among the capacity crowd to "get their bums off their seats".
Until the moment that Smith was laid out on the carefully clipped canvas, at which point the high-pitched hum gave way to shocked silence.
From where he was stationed, near the fine leg boundary immediately in front of the soon-to-be-redeveloped Edrich Stand, Woakes was not certain as to where Smith had been hit when he failed to defend himself against an Archer haymaker.
But such is the ambience at Lord's, he knew the clear sound of ball hitting bare flesh – as opposed to the clunk of leather on protective helmet or willow bat – spelled trouble, and possibly catastrophe.
"I wasn't close to the action, but you could hear it was more fleshy around the neck area and when that's the case, you're immediately worried as a player," Woakes revealed at day's end.
On the opposite side of the fabled ground and the Ashes rivalry, Smith's teammates were watching from his corner – the elevated balcony set at the western end of the heritage-protected players' pavilion.
Not even the hush that instantly enveloped the 30,000-seat venue as Smith crashed forward on to the pitch and then lay prostrate on his back allowed the noise that had so troubled Woakes to float back to an already dumbstruck Australia dressing room.
But coach Justin Langer, who was dealt a similarly violent blow to the head in his debut Test against the West Indies in 1993 and a worse hit in his 100th match more than a decade later, said thoughts immediately turned to the tragic death of Phillip Hughes in November 2014.
"There's obviously some pretty rough memories of a blow like that so … there was no fun in it," Langer said post-play, by which time Smith had passed a range of concussion tests and also been cleared of an arm fracture from an earlier Archer hit.
As Smith lay motionless on cricket's most revered turf, and England's players, his batting partner Pat Cummins and the umpires gathered anxiously around him, medical staff sprinted to the middle and the recently ordained protocols that apply to head knocks in Test cricket were applied.
When Smith was struck by New Zealand's Neil Wagner at Christchurch in 2016 and was left similarly prone on the pitch, one of the on-field questions posed by doctors to gauge his lucidity level was 'who is the current Prime Minister of Australia?'.
Given the regularity and speed at which that office has changed occupants in recent years, the modified Maddocks test to which Smith was subjected on Saturday was less political.
He was asked, among other questions, 'where are we playing; who bowled the ball; who bowled the previous over; who was the last man dismissed; where was your last match; where did the ball hit you?'.
The fact he was able to provide correct answers, and insist he was sufficiently coherent and committed to continue batting despite the impact and its accompanying shock was not enough to prevent Bupa Support Team doctor Richard Saw from instructing Smith to retire hurt.
He left the field unassisted and once within the inner sanctum of the dressing room, the 30-year-old immediately underwent a further round of more stringent tests to ascertain the immediate effects of the incident.
Initially, that comprised an evaluation tool known as SCAT5, which incorporates the earlier spoken responses with more detailed examination of non-verbal signs and physical cues such as balance, eye patterns and assessment of any symptoms.
On top of those protocols, Cricket Australia also mandates a computerised CogSport assessment, which is then checked against baseline data that has been collected on all players during out-of-season testing.
Throughout all those procedures, Smith's clearly articulated concerns were the damage done to his arm (the early diagnosis of no discernible fracture was later confirmed by x-ray) and the need for him to get back to the middle to resume his battle against England, and Archer.
"As soon as he got up in the medical room, he was like 'nah, I'm going okay'," Langer said.
"He had the concussion testing (and) the doctor came through and said 'he's passed all that and he's pretty good'.
"By the time he (Smith) walked back into the dressing room, he just couldn't wait to get back out there again.
"I was saying 'mate are you sure you're okay?' – these are like my sons, so you're never going to put them in harm's way.
"He was going 'mate, I just want to get out there. I can't get up on the honours board (that records century makers at Lord's) unless I'm out there batting'.
"All that he was worried about was that he wasn't going to be able to play his forward defence because it was hurting with his top-hand to grip (the bat).
"I asked him behind closed doors two or three times, I asked him in front of the group, he just kept going 'all good, all good coach – I'm ready to go, I'm ready to go'.
"We were looking after him and he said, 'honestly I'm ready to go, my arm is just a bit sore', so that's why he went back out there."
It was likely the pain in the arm, and the doubts that he held about the solidity of his defence, that brought about his dismissal in circumstances so rare that some folks who hold no medical expertise but voluble opinions cited it as some sort of proof his cognitive function was indeed impaired.
Woakes, the allrounder who removed Smith for 92 (his lowest score of the series) when the wounded batter offered no stroke to a delivery that would have collected at least two of his stumps, cheekily suggested it was simply a superior piece of bowling.
He also denied that England's strategy had been to attack Smith's person using the extra pace that Archer suddenly brought to their line-up.
But he acknowledged they had to try something different, given the dominance Smith had wielded in the first Test and up until lunch on day four of the second.
"It took a serious spell of bowling from Jofra to get Steve out of his bubble I suppose, because so far in this series he's been incredible," Woakes said.
"It was serious pace, I'm sure it was incredible to watch, incredible to be part of on the field and thankfully – having seen Steve on the balcony – he's obviously okay, which is good news.
"We've tried to test his technique in every way possible.
"We're trying different plans – we tried bowling outside off-stump, we tried bowling straight, and then I suppose it's taken something special from Jofra to maybe rattle him a little bit.
"I don't think that was physically the intention from the start of the day, but it's the way it works sometimes."
It worked for Australia's fast bowlers on day two at Lord's, when England's top, middle and lower-order batters – including Woakes, who was himself struck on the helmet by Pat Cummins and underwent a standing concussion test – were subjected to relentless short-pitched bowling.
It led their opener and Smith's main rival as series leading runs-scorer, Rory Burns, to note that bombarding batters' upper bodies was obviously a pre-meditated tactic, and to presciently warn that England would return the strategy in kind.
"Luckily, we can dish out some of our own in this game as well," Burns said on Thursday evening, without specifically citing Archer.
"We've got some boys in our armoury who do the same thing, so it should be pretty interesting."
Due to the ongoing processes contained within the concussion protocols, Smith is no certainty to take part in Sunday's final phase of a Test that seemed destined to be ruined by rain but has, instead, exploded into life.
But whether he makes it back out to the centre where Saturday's dramatic events unfurled, or remains in the dressing room where the 215 he scored at Lord's in 2015 ensures his name already adorns the honours board, he will know he's already gone several bruising bouts.
"I'm sure he'll be very sore tomorrow, his arm and his neck, but he was in good spirits," Langer said on Saturday night, noting that whenever Smith bats again he will also carry some mental pain from the encounter.
"I can only go from experience, but when you get hit, it's always in the back of your mind.
"No doubt, every batter – any batsman who tells you it's not, is a liar.
"But he's also the sort of person who will do everything from now until the next time he bats, whether it's mentally visualising or practicing, to be right.
"He just loves batting, and nobody is going to stop him batting.
"He'll practice it, he'll work it out and hopefully he'll get back into it.
"The fact that he came out and batted today again (means) he'll be right to go."
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, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), 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