Game on. Six of the best for Jofra Archer and a reminder of how infectious Sam Curran can be, his waspish medium pace a darting, giddy complement to the A-Man’s violent pace. Curran’s vibrant appeals, the leaping celebrations are tailor made for Friday afternoons, propelling us into the weekend with hope in our hearts and a smile on our faces, the anti Steve Smith if you like.
The latter observation is of course borne of respect for a batsman of unflinching conviction. It is not his fault the opposition struggle to get him out. Neither is it ours that crushing predictability melts enthusiasm quicker than snow in the Caribbean. Curran erupted across the Oval like a starburst with three wickets in the late afternoon to remind us of the quality that made him one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year in 2018.
Though he didn’t claim the scalp of Smith, it is entirely possible that his contribution, ousting Matthew Wade, Tim Paine and Pat Cummins, was disruptive enough to unsettle the adhesive one sufficiently to make his wicket available. Chris Woakes mopped him up by bowling the perfect delivery at a batsman who moves across his stumps, a ball full of length that kept helpfully low and smashed into the pads. Smith was gone for 80, his lowest score of the series but still the highest knock of the match.
As ever England had little trouble getting Smith to the crease. The first wicket went down with the score on five. No points for guessing who. The surprise was that Stuart Broad played no part, David Warner becoming the first of Archer’s haul. Archer, pictured, struck again to dismiss Marcus Harris with the score on 14, which served only to pair Australia’s most destructive duo.
The sun out, Smith cracking balls to the boundary, barely a hint of a chance. At the other end, Marnus Labuschagne, a kind of Smith lite, untroubled, unfussy, playing the percentages. What we had in this period of Australian ascendency was the English summer in microcosm.
The impression created with Smith at the wicket is one of certainty. From ten to 20 to 30 and on, the landmarks come and go as a matter of course, Smith betraying not a hint of the jeopardy that appears to stalk the English cricketer. It seems the only way to discomfit Smith, and Labuschagne for that matter, is to break them.
Smith missed an innings and one Test after being battered by Archer. Labuschagne, who also took a blow to the head as Smith’s substitute at Lord’s, was whacked on the arm in the second session here from a rapier Archer delivery that led to the appearance of the medical staff. How he winced as the physio rotated his wrist, and as he wriggled his arm in a bid to shake off the throbbing pulsating through the tissues. In Archer’s very next over Labuschagne would be gone, trapped lbw, the result perhaps of that blow having backed him ever deeper into his crease. Smith continued to accumulate. With his tenth 50 in a row against England we reached full Smith fatigue, the point where a boundary off his bat is such an accepted occurrence that fielders no longer move and the audience doesn’t bother to applaud. They have even stopped booing him for goodness sake.
The idea of Smith’s impregnability has taken root among the players also, which perhaps accounts for their surprise when a chance does come along. Joe Root would snaffle the Smith top edge off Curran more often than not. Perhaps Ben Stokes encroached enough to slow his reaction a fraction. The ball went in and out of an outstretched mitt and Smith was still there on 66.
With Curran an electric presence and Archer steaming in to end the late rally of Nathan Lyon and Peter Siddle the mistake would not prove overly costly. Though the catch claimed by Rory Burns to dismiss Siddle was of the leaping salmon variety, it condemned him and opening partner Joe Denly to 17 minutes at the end of day fending off Cummins and Josh Hazelwood.
Denly was dropped by Harris at slip in the final over and Burns survived a robust lastball lbw appeal to head into day three with ten wickets in hand and a lead of 78, an advantage they would have happily taken at the start of play.