Not since Kevin Pietersen in the legendary 2005 Ashes has a player taken to Test match cricket quite like Jofra Archer. Hot off the heels of his heroic World Cup-winning super over last month, Archer returned Lord’s and set about engrossing everyone in his magnificent battle with Steve Smith.
Smith, arguably the greatest Test batsman since Sir Don Bradman (at least according to batting averages), had frustrated England to no end with twin hundreds in the first Test at Edgbaston and was far and away the biggest difference between the two sides.
Archer was the new kid on the block. The supposed white-ball specialist. He had only played second division cricket for Sussex. He had only played one first-class game in 11 months. He had missed the last two Tests through injury. He was replacing England’s highest ever wicket-taker. “Have you got the mental toughness and the physical endurance to play well in Test cricket?” questioned Australia’s coach Justin Langer.
However, despite so much on paper going against Archer, the 24-year-old showed exactly why so many people have been so excited about him for so long.
He has an intangible X-factor which simply does not come around that often. As his former Sussex coach Jon Lewis put it, Archer is a “generational” talent.
His battle against Smith on the fourth day was reminiscent of Allan Donald’s magnificent duel with Michael Atherton at Trent Bridge in 1998.
Although Atherton weathered Donald’s storm to make 98 not out and help England chase down an improbable 247 to win, Archer went one further.
For around 45 minutes on that fourth day, the best batsman in the world was tormented by the debutant.
Hot off the heels of terrorising the poor Gloucestershire Second XI, Archer was now delivering pure, unadulterated thunderbolts with an 80-over old ball having already bowled 25 overs. He certainly answered Langer’s questions.
He hit Smith on the arm and then the side of the head, felling the player in a moment which, for a split second, brought back horrifying memories of the death of Phil Hughes.
Luckily Smith was okay and returned half an hour later to fall agonisingly short of a third consecutive hundred. The damage, however, had been done and the game turned on its head for a thrilling finale.
Rain, which had already robbed so much from this Test, took another hour at the start of day five and, having only survived the previous night thanks to a dropped catch from David Warner, Ben Stokes made a brutal hundred.
Setting Australia 267 runs to chase looked improbable, with England needing 10 wickets in 48 overs to force a victory.
And how close they came.
With Smith ruled out, Marnus Labuschagne became Test cricket’s first-ever concussion replacement under rules which had been introduced just in time for this series and the 25-year-old was immediately into the thick of the battle.
Archer removed Warner for yet another low score, just 5 this time, as his poor Ashes form continued and the England quick promptly worked over Usman Khawaja with his ripping pace, dismissing him for 2.
Now, with less than six overs bowled, Australia were in real trouble at 19-2 and their concussion replacement Labuschagne walking to the crease.
For Labuschagne, it could not be a more difficult situation for his Ashes debut.
With his side needing to save the game, he came out to bat replacing the world’s premier Test batsman having played no prior part in the match. Archer was on fire, two of Australia’s most experienced batsmen had already been dismissed and all the momentum was with England.
In the face of such difficult odds, Labuschagne scratched and clawed his way to a half-century. He was hit multiple times and survived an England review to put on a gutsy 85-run partnership with Travis Head who himself was dropped on 22 by Jason Roy.
A controversial catch dismissed Labuschagne for 59 and reopened the door for England, one which he and Head had worked so hard to try and close.
With Archer’s searing pace from one end and the much more sedate yet violently threatening left-arm spin of Jack Leach from the other, the game was once again on.
Leach removed Matthew Wade with the first ball of his next over and Archer bounced out captain Tim Paine thanks to a stunning Joe Denly catch. Head, however, stood firm and there was simply not enough time left for England to force the win and the draw was confirmed with England an agonising four wickets away.
On the face of it, a draw helps Australia. As the current holders of the urn a drawn series would mean they retain the Ashes and, with just three Test’s left and 1-0 up in the series, they will know they only need to win one more match.
However, this game highlighted so many positives for England that they will head into the third Test at Headingley with so much momentum.
Rory Burns’ first innings fifty once again showed he has what it takes at this level. Stokes’ hundred after moving to number five was excellent. Leach’s contribution with the ball was more than enough to cement his place as first-choice spinner. And Archer’s game-altering spells with the ball now mean England have a real weapon in their line-up. Just as Smith was the difference at Edgbaston, Archer so nearly was at Lord’s.
The third Test is now must-see. The entire series hinges on that result. After the downright ridiculous drama of the World Cup, it seemed almost impossible that the Ashes could deliver anything quite on that level but, after the Test match we have just witnessed, it now seems as though we are in the midst of a series which may not only match it but surpass it.