It's amazing how one man can turn around the mood and fortunes of a team single-handedly. Jofra Archer has arrived and in some style, living up to the hype, breathing an extra dose of excitement into Test cricket and leaving the Australians fending.
17 days ago, a drowsy England had their fortress breached and were left with a cacophony of alarm bells in their ears. They lost their old and most trusted guard, James Anderson, inside the first hour of the Test, smelled the familiar scent of collapse, got ground down by Steve Smith and were left to ponder how to get him out.
Enter Jofra Archer. The barbs flew. Australia coach Justin Langer was 'curious' to see how he goes with the red-ball. For Archer, Langer had 'another thing coming'.
The Lord's Test was all about the Archer vs Smith. Could Archer be England's key to unlocking the Smith conundrum? The hype of the battle lived up to its expectations. In fact, it ended up being a theatre with no shortage of heroes, drama, tension, and emotion.
In an incredible hour of Test cricket, Archer breathed life into a rain-marred Test with a fiery spell of fast bowling which left Smith concussed and the rest of the Australian batsmen fending.
It showed why Archer was so highly rated and why England had built their hopes on him even before he had bowled a ball in Test cricket.
It took a brave rearguard from super-sub Marnus Labuschagne and then by Travis Head to save the Test in the dying light at Lord's. Which meant that the scoreline was still 1-0 in Australia’s favour after two Tests.
The Smith vs Archer duel won't resume sooner as the Australian batsman is ruled out of the third Test with a concussion. Smith was the difference in the first Test and was proving to be so again in the second before being hit on the neck by Archer and when he bravely came back to bat, which he shouldn’t have, he wasn't the same batsman.
As the Ashes moves 200 miles away from Lord's, to Headingley, the Archer threat looms again for Australia. His accurate, express bouncers coupled with his skill-set make for a deadly combo. Archer has added the extra dimension to England's bowling attack and the excitement levels have shot up.
Captain Joe Root and Ben Stokes have already fired warning shots.
"One thing it will do is make them (Australia) think about how they're going to have to come back," Root said after the Lord's Test. "He is going to come at them, and it's always nice when you're stood at slip and not batting against him.”
“It’s part of the game and a big part of Jofra’s game, being aggressive, not letting batsmen settle,” said Stokes ahead of the third Test. ”That bouncer of his is a huge asset and he’s going to keep on doing it. When someone takes a nasty blow, no bowler is going to say 'I’m not going to bowl that again because I don’t want to hit them again' — the concern is always there when someone takes it but next ball, when you get back to the mark, it’s 'I’m going to keep doing it."
"We’ve seen Mitchell Johnson do it to us, especially in 2013, but Jofra just makes it look so easy … like he’s walking in to bowl. And I’d rather have him on my team than have to face him. He’s a frightening talent and he’s announced himself on the world stage, just in a different format again this year. Literally, sky is the limit for him and he’s a great addition to our Test team.”
Australia, too, have one of the best pace attacks in the world with six fit quality fast bowlers firing. Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc can ramp up the pace as well. Langer, however, insisted that Australia are not going to get caught up in the emotional battle of bouncers. While also insisting that the batsmen will have to bring in the experience of playing on bouncy tracks of the WACA and Gabba back home.
"Our guys play a lot of short-ball cricket in Australia. We tend to play on bouncy wickets. We play on the WACA, we play on the Gabba," Langer said. "So they're used to playing off the back foot, and I'm sure they'll prepare accordingly. England will be the same, I'm sure they've got plans how they'll get our batsmen out, not just knock them out, so they're working hard on it. We know Jofra's a very good bowler, we saw what he can do the other day.
"We know Stuart Broad's a brilliant bowler, we know Chris Woakes is really hard work, we've seen how Stokes comes in and runs in with that energy and passion every time he plays, so we know we're up against it, and we're really going to be ready for that. We have to be, otherwise, we won't win the series."
While they try to devise a plan for Archer, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft's form has aggravated Australia's worries. Warner has managed just 18 runs in four innings while Bancroft has fared slightly better than his opening partner with 44. The Western Australian seems to be running on thin ice with an average of 26.23 in Tests without a single century. He is expected to be retained for Leeds though while Marnus Labuschange, whose doughty innings earned Australia a draw at Lord's, is expected to replace Smith at No 4.
The bowling department might see one change with the rested James Pattinson returning in place of either Peter Siddle or Josh Hazlewood. Starc may have to still wait for his chance.
At Lord's, some of England's jigsaw pieces started falling into place. Jonny Bairstow exuded positivity after a barren run with a half-century in the first and a breezy 30 off 37 balls in the second innings. Jack Leach, who replaced Moeen Ali, threatened when bowling in the rough. A transformed Stokes hit his first Test ton in two years.
It, however, doesn't take the focus away from their batting problems. Just like Australia, the problems stem from the top. Jason Roy has endured a tough time post the World Cup heroics and garnered just 40 runs from four innings. He's appeared to struggle against the new ball and England coach Trevor Bayliss admitted that Roy might be suited for the middle-order but the chances of change in the batting order are minimal with the coach insisting on continuity.
Joe Root is the pivot around which this English batting revolves and his struggles are one of the main reasons it has wobbled. His issues against the straight balls have been highlighted. According to data analytics site Cricviz, Root's LBW and bowled percentage has soared from 24 to 38 percent since 2016 and his average plummeted to 15.28 from 68.66 against the ball hitting the stumps. Joe Denly has struggled to convert his moderate starts. The batting needs to click in unison.
England have announced an unchanged squad so both Roy and Denly are expected to keep their place. Roy was hit on the helmet while facing throwdowns in the nets but he’s passed a concussion test. Surrey’s Ollie Pope has been added to the squad as a cover for Roy. In the bowling department, Anderson is ruled out, still recuperating from his calf injury. The disciplined and relentless Chris Woakes, who's been playing non-stop cricket, might be given a rest with Sam Curran coming in.
Apart from the top order, the one common worry for both sides is their catching. There have been plenty of drops and half-chances missed. It might prove to be decisive in the outcome of a series where the margin of error is minimal.
Langer expects the pitch to be quite slow as compared to the first two Tests. The weather is positive compared to Lord's with showers expected only on the first day.
Just like Lord’s, Headingley has been a happy hunting ground for Australia. They have won four of their last five matches here. Overall they have nine wins compared to England's seven, from 24 matches. Eight have ended in a draw. The last time they met here, back in August 2009, England were thumped by an innings.
The tide has turned and with Australia seeming like a ship without a rudder, this is England's chance to draw level and gain the mental edge. A loss would mean Australia retain the Ashes.
Let the Archer show begin then, again!
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