There were 24.1 overs possible on the third day at Lord’s. Enough time for a rapt crowd to be seduced by possibility as Australia resisted in the first hour then faltered in the next, to leave the balance of the innings – and by extension the match – once again firmly pressed into the flinchy, twitchy, impossibly idiosyncratic hands of Steven Smith.
But it’s a measure of the speed and fragility of Test batting in the T20 era that three wickets seemed scant return for the opportunity that had presented itself in England’s two-hour window before the deluge.
Perhaps we are getting greedy, or cynical, or both. Or perhaps we need only to look at the evidence of recent Test matches involving England – most particularly on this very ground, but all around the world too – to know that when bowling sides get it right in even the most faintly conducive of conditions, carnage can ensue.
After all, 24.1 overs is three more balls than Ireland required to rout England for 85 on the first day at Lord’s last month. And it is 51 more than England themselves needed to exact their fourth-innings vengeance in the same game, as Ireland tumbled in turn for 38.
It is 16 deliveries more than England needed to lose all ten of their wickets against West Indies in Barbados in February, and 21 more than it took for them to be 58 all out in Auckland two winters ago.
And, lest we lose sight of the fact that England aren’t the team batting right now, it is still only three home Ashes Tests since Australia were the side being routed for 60 in 18.3 overs at Trent Bridge.
And as the instigator of that remarkable rout four years ago, Stuart Broad knows better than most what can happen when bowling sides get on a roll these days. “We’re pretty positive,” he said of the match situation. “We’d need to bowl Australia out by lunch tomorrow, but there’s 98 overs for the next two days, which for both teams has been enough to bowl each other out, hasn’t it?”
And the common denominator to all of the above debacles? It was length, obviously. There was high-class pace on occasions, allied to late movement, not least from New Zealand’s Trent Boult and West Indies’ Kemar Roach. But whatever the speed, the top of off has been the target, best exemplified by Ireland’s Tim Murtagh, and also by England’s best combination for the brooding grey skies that greeted today’s start of play – Broad himself and Chris Woakes.
But instead what we got was exhilarating in its own way, but by and large a pointless misallocation of England’s precious resources. By the time he was given a breather in the second hour of the morning, Jofra Archer had bowled 13 overs out of 27 – six on Wednesday night, seven more this morning – and if sighting his exocets in the gloom was occasionally tricky for Australia’s batsmen, it was nothing like the challenge that England should have been unleashing.
If truth be told, Australia could and probably should have been routed under cloud cover, just as England should – but clearly couldn’t – have capitalised on Thursday’s clear skies after being inserted. That’s just the way the Test cookie is crumbling these days, and Broad knows that only too well.
“It was maybe a yard too short from all of us” Stuart Broad
“We know here at Lord’s that if the sun comes out you can quite easily go and get a wicketless session with the bat,” he said. “But you know if it clouds over and the humidity rises, you can get 10 wickets in a session. You need a bit of luck when those conditions fall. Both bowling attacks have got a lot of confidence in taking wickets. I think this series will be quite intriguing.”
“[Jofra] showed great control, bowls a nice nagging length. I don’t think there’s any doubt within the group and within the media that he has the attributes to be a Test cricketer. There are going to be times when he blows teams away.”
But this was not a day for blowing a side away. This was a day for old-fashioned English seam-and-swing virtues, one of the few areas in which England still retain genuine Test prowess. And for all of Archer’s preternatural coolness under fire, he was still a debutant quick striving for his maiden Test wicket in the midst of a Lord’s Ashes Test, and in conditions that have been proven to favour bowlers who stay within their limitations and simply invite errors.
None of which is intended as any criticism of Archer’s approach to his day’s work. Rather, it points to an unsympathetic piece of captaincy from Joe Root, who seems every bit as excited by his new quick’s potential as England’s fans, but whose most fundamental role is to not to get carried away by what he offers. It was, as Michael Vaughan noted on Test Match Special, as if England had jumped straight to “Plan D or E” without trusting the tried and tested.
“It was a bit of a learner for him this morning,” Broad said of Archer’s spell. “There was a bit getting used to the slope in red-ball cricket at Lord’s. It was maybe a yard too short from all of us until we made a conscious effort to get it fuller and we got instant reward bringing stumps into play with [Cameron] Bancroft, and then Woakesy’s full-of-a-length to get the edge.”
Almost half of Archer’s deliveries on the third day – 20 out of 42 – were left alone with varying degrees of comfort, which coincidentally matched the number of his deliveries that were either back of a length or short. Woakes, by contrast, found the edge on a full length with each of his first two balls when he finally entered the attack, and though he strayed from his immaculate lines twice in that same over, 40 of his 48 balls ended up being a good length or fuller – one of which soon found Usman Khawaja‘s edge in the channel.
It’s easy to be seduced by Archer’s languid attributes, the effortless pace from an ambling run-up and the desire for hard work that led to him cranking his pace up to 93.5mph the moment that Smith strayed into his sights at the fag-end of his spell – which in itself seemed a strategic error, seeing as high pace is one of the few weapons that England believe will unseat him.
But Archer is also a bowler that England are going to need to keep as “cherry-ripe” as possible if they are to force their way back into contention in this series, especially with three more Tests to come in four weeks, and their stocks already depleted – unlike Australia’s – by injuries to James Anderson, Mark Wood and Olly Stone.
The loss of two more sessions in this match means that Archer’s workload isn’t going to be an issue right at this moment. “Thirteen overs in 24 hours is not bad,” said Broad, who argued that he actually needs more overs under his belt to get used to bowling good spells. Which is all well and good, but all the more reason not to have squandered a rare window of bowling opportunity on what essentially amounted to a high-profile practice session.
“I don’t think Jofra bowled as quick as he can out there,” Broad added. “But what impressed me was his nagging line, the fact he can bring all dismissals in, he’s aggressive with his bouncer and this is his first Test match.
“It’s a big learning experience and he seems willing and keen to learn. In our minds, because he’s been involved with the World Cup and talked about so much in the last six months, we think he’s an experienced, older and knows-it-all cricketer but he’s still learning his trade a little bit, although he’s doing it with great success.”