England battling omens and weather in Lord's Test they cannot afford to lose

Scyld Berry
The Telegraph
England's Ben Stokes and his team-mates walks through the Long Room on the eve of the Second Test against Australia - Getty Images Europe
England's Ben Stokes and his team-mates walks through the Long Room on the eve of the Second Test against Australia - Getty Images Europe

It is still the fixture above all cricket fixtures: the England v Australia Test at Lord’s. Only a month has passed since the World Cup ­final, and the most tremendous ­climax to any cricket match, but if only because it lasts several days – not one – the Test between the ­oldest foes remains supreme, and it is not going to be overtaken, at least until a lasting settlement of ­Kashmir.

It remains the supreme fixture partly because every Ashes Test here has differed from all others. This week’s will be unique, having its own plot – can England come back to win this series, after losing the opening Test, for only the fourth time since the First World War? – and a host of sub-plots, starring Steve Smith (as his inimitable self) and Joe Root (harassed home captain), with Jofra Archer making his debut as fast bowler extraordinaire.

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This match will also be made unique by the weather, with loads of rain forecast, and the pitch, which is far less green than it was for the start of England’s inaugural Test against Ireland, but reckoned to be equally dry underneath. The days when Lord’s was flat – six consecutive drawn Tests, at two per year, from 2006 to 2008 – are being replaced by a low-scoring era, with totals such as England all out for 85, and Ireland 38.

England will need luck, or a world-class debut by Archer, to offset the omens and reverse the tide which has run against them since James Anderson limped off with this series seven overs old. 

Luck could be in the form of winning the toss, or of losing it on a cloudy afternoon after morning rain, when Tim Paine feels, as he did at Edgbaston, that Australia must bat first to allow Nathan Lyon to bowl last on an ultra-dry pitch. Overhead conditions, a new Dukes ball and the pitch’s superficial dampness might then enable England’s pace bowlers to win this game effectively in a session.

Omens do not favour England, however, whichever ones you dissect. Since 1896 – not 1996 – England have beaten Australia three times in 30 Lord’s Tests. If Edgbaston was England’s fortress, Lord’s has been Australia’s, bringing out the best in them, as it usually hosts the second Test when the tourists are peaking. England’s supporters may have become accustomed to, or complacent about, their team beating Australia at Lord’s because they did so in 2009 and 2013, but otherwise in the last 123 years they have done so once.

Australia won the last Ashes Test here, in 2015, by 405 runs. Mitchell Starc took two expensive wickets, and Josh Hazlewood an economical five, which may have a bearing on which one replaces James Pattinson and who goes into the garage for fine-tuning ahead of the Headingley Test, which follows tomorrow week. If Starc plays, he will aggravate England’s lack of a specialist off-spinner, because the footmarks he creates outside the off stump of a right-handed batsman standing at the Pavilion End will be largely for Nathan Lyon’s benefit.

Australia won their last one-day international against England here – which may be a close parallel in spite of the difference in format. In that World Cup group game, on another damp day, Eoin Morgan sent Australia in and England, apart from Chris Woakes, were cowed by David Warner and Aaron Finch into bowling too short. Morgan’s inscrutability never lapsed, yet he made his exasperation plain by bringing on both spinners by the 18th over.

Archer, who opened the bowling that morning with Woakes, had some excuse for pitching too short in that he had to play with the side-strain which has since cleared. Even so, Stuart Broad and Woakes, from the Nursery End, can be expected to open England’s bowling as they did three weeks ago, followed by Archer if Australia should score more than Ireland’s 38.

It is being assumed that Archer, if he can propel England back into this series, will do it by bowling fast right-arm, but at quiet moments during the World Cup while standing at mid-on he would bowl slow left-arm, and none too slow either. Strange surfaces produce strange events, like Jack Leach, England’s left-arm spinner in the Ireland Test, not taking a wicket, but making the top score of 92 as emergency opener.

On the eve of this Test, Australia’s captain Paine, though 34, looked almost as boyish as he did when he made his debut here, against Pakistan, in 2010 – when Pakistan were first looking for an alternative venue after the Lahore bombing. Boyish, yet impressively mature. A gangly leg-spinner also made his Test debut nine years ago at Lord’s – taking three wickets, then hitting some astounding strokes in his 77 in the following Test at Leeds – by the surname of Smith.

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