Short leg and leg gully lay in wait for the short ball. Fine leg, too. This was a very un-English field and, for anyone who has watched England in Test cricket in the past decade, a very un-English sight: the frisson of excitement that a bowler generates hurling the ball at over 90mph. As Australia’s behemoth Steve Smith took guard for his first ball at Lord’s, it no longer felt as if England were throwing peas at a tank.
A minor tremor took hold at Lord’s as Smith faced his first ball. It was just a little too wide. But it was 93.4mph, the fastest ball of the series so far - and, for Smith, a reminder of the new challenge that Jofra Archer would present.
A couple of minutes earlier, Archer had taken his first Test wicket. After enduring a barrage of short bowling from Archer, Cameron Bancroft was late on a delivery that seamed in, an lbw verdict upheld upon his review. For Archer, this was the first moment of joy on what was England’s most anticipated Test debut since Kevin Pietersen.
In the three years since his first-class debut for Sussex, Archer has gloried in wrecking stumps in compiling a formidable first-class record: 131 wickets at just 23.44 apiece. The only slight caveat is that, besides a solitary tour match for Sussex against Pakistan three years ago - his first-class debut - all these wickets have been taken in Division Two, where the gap with Division One of the County Championship, never mind Test cricket, has morphed into a chasm.
So in some ways Archer’s selection short-circuited the norms. Would-be Test debutants are encouraged to play Division One cricket to advance their claims, and are funnelled through the England Lions programme of which Archer has never been a part. And they would not go 11 months since their last first-class appearance before their Test bows, as Archer has here. But talent like Archer’s is so compelling that the normal rules need not apply. With his addition, England instantly became a stronger team.
Jofra Archer's 1⃣st Test wicket! ��
Bancroft plays back to a delivery that moves back and hits the batsman above the knee roll - umpire Aleem Dar gives it out. It's marginal but out.
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At Edgbaston, it felt like, since the last Ashes series, England had gone a very long way to get nowhere at all. Having spent the entire last Ashes series bemoaning their surfeit of right-arm bowlers delivering the ball over-the-wicket at a little over 80mph, England arrived at Edgbaston with the same triumvirate of pace bowlers - James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes - who had led their attack forlornly down under. For all their pedigree, these bowlers can sometimes be less than the sum of their parts in unhelpful conditions.
So the need for Archer in Test cricket was immediate, with an Ashes series to save. But England will hope that the real dividend lies further ahead. In an age of heightened home advantage in Test cricket, well-directed raw pace is a currency that transfers freely to all climes. This week Dale Steyn, the greatest fast bowler of his generation, retired from Tests. For all the devastation he wrought in home climes, his greatest achievement was leading an attack which went a remarkable nine years without a series defeat away.
In his speed, if not quite his accuracy, Archer has channelled Steyn’s spirit at Lord’s. Over his 13 overs on the second evening and third day, he delivered the ball at an average of 88mph: the fastest average recorded by any Englishman in a Test since 2013.
Yet, even more than his speed, the most impressive aspect of Archer’s performance on the third morning was his stamina. Archer bowled eight overs straight from the Pavillon End, a spell of the duration that bowling at such pace is meant to preclude. He didn’t flag; instead, Archer accelerated in pace. His eighth over, indeed, averaged 88.5mph - fully three mph more than his first of the day.
These were persistently hostile to face, even if Archer’s line was a little wayward. The upshot was that Australia’s batsmen could leave over one-third of his deliveries, half as many again as the norm for pace bowlers in Tests. Perhaps England’s fields - the nearest to Bodyline, really, that the laws of the game permit - were too funky, given the assistance provided by the skies overhead.
For England, the only snag was that Bancroft was dismissed so late in Archer’s spell, the penultimate ball of his sixth over of the day. Archer, indeed, only bowled two deliveries to Smith before being taken off.
The days ahead will not always be so kind. Archer will learn that Test cricket can be brutal. But, nestled in this skirmish, was ample evidence that Archer will teach England’s opponents of this brutality too, and not only in conditions ordinarily to England’s liking.