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England leave Lord’s smiling

by Taha Hashim 5 minute read

Taha Hashim reports on another enthralling day’s play at Lord’s, where England fell four wickets short of an incredible win.

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Four wickets stood between England and a win for the ages as a simply incredible Test match came to its conclusion at Lord’s on Sunday. And while victory did not arrive, the hosts will now move to Headingley with renewed belief that they can find a way back into this Ashes series.

The mood was gloomy for Australia from the get-go. As Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes batted through the morning session, major news broke that Steve Smith would miss the rest of the match due to concussion, putting in doubt his availability for the next Test at Headingley.

Smith woke up in the morning with “a bit of a headache and a feeling of grogginess”, delayed effects from a sickening blow to the neck he received from a sharp Jofra Archer delivery yesterday. In the words of a Cricket Australia statement, “the short turnaround to the next Test is not in his favour”.

And as Stokes hit Nathan Lyon for consecutive sixes in the 64th over, you felt the series had a very different feel to it. Smith has been the conductor of this series, every man present at his beck and call. But even his absence in the field seemed to bear a level of significance. England could finally breathe. 

Stokes himself seemed freed up, bringing a welcome urgency to the morning session which was ramped up after lunch, with his two slog-sweeps off Lyon. The next over saw him hop down the pitch to Peter Siddle and slap him for four through the off side.

A wild swipe against Josh Hazlewood saw him play and miss, and then came a ball that thudded into an area where no man should hit, the location of the blow confirmed by Stokes as he let the stump microphone know of his pain.

Not that such a hit would knock him from his mission: to help set up a declaration total. 

There will always remain a scratchiness to Stokes. He can’t lace drives from ball one; he has to try out a few different chairs before he can sit back, relax and put his feet up.

The square-drive to reach the nineties was evidence of that, chucking some elegance in the face of the bowler who had brought him onto his haunches. A nervy time on 99 was ended with a single through square-leg, the fists pumping for his first Test century in two years. Far too long, for far too good a player.

He duly walloped a four down the ground and clobbered over midwicket for six, and you could have been forgiven for thinking it was mid-July and that final all over again. Lord’s felt like home for England once more, Australia’s fielders scurrying hopelessly as shots pinged to the boundary.

The roar for the declaration arrived with England setting a target of 267. Root had thrown down the challenge to Australia. You’ve lost your best man, you lot any good now?

No one is too good in front of Jofra Archer. David Warner has been Stuart Broad’s bunny so far this series, but today Archer jagged the ball back in to catch his edge. A run-guzzler at the World Cup, Australia best batsman after Smith is suddenly looking lost; he has yet to post double figures in the series. 

The dismissal of Usman Khawaja, nicking off to a beautiful Archer delivery that slid across him, led to the arrival of Marnus Labuschagne, a man making history. In for Smith, Labuschagne became the first man to be subbed into a Test match as a concussion replacement, a new and welcome addition to the ICC’s rules and regulations.

How would he have felt waking up this morning? He’d probably have thought he’d be off to the nets for a few throwdowns. Maybe he’d turn his arm over for a few leggies. Run drinks to the boys and take it easy.

But out he emerged to face the ferocity, live the fear. If he thought he was dreaming, Archer made sure to wake him up. The second ball rattled into his helmet and down he went before manically getting back to his feet, dazed and confused about how on earth he’d ended up here on a Sunday afternoon.

Watching bouncer after bouncer from any other bowler can be an odd experience. You know it’s not fun for the batsman, but the fear hasn’t hit you, it isn’t playing on your mind while you soak it all in from beyond the boundary. With Archer, there’s no way of getting away from it; basic human empathy prevails and you want to make sure that chin strap on a helmet is fastened as tight as possible.

Labuschagne was resplendent, though. He was compact and wristy, able to score even when you’d pat him on the back just for surviving. The ICC concussion rule deems that replacements be like-for-like. Labuschagne doesn’t possess a Test average in the sixties, but he showed ticker similar to that of Smith’s.

Together, he and Travis Head appeared to have sucked out any lucid English thoughts of a Lord’s smash-and-grab. A drop from Jason Roy in the slips seemed to signal where the match was heading. But after posting his half-century, Labuschagne loosened a touch, a sweep finding a diving Root to give Leach his second wicket.

Then fell Matthew Wade and the hope grew, and when Joe Denly dived to his left to take an astounding catch, everything felt hallucinogenic once more. Leach’s spin probed away, the half-chances popping up to feed the crowd even more energy.

The handshakes eventually came out and that was the end of the fun; Lord’s was a sell-out today, for the fifth day of a truncated match. The punters got their money’s worth. In the form of Stokes and Archer, breakout stars of a breakout summer, England’s Ashes campaign is riding again.

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