Only two wickets down, 136 on the board, Australia motoring. Who you gonna call? Well, Jofra Archer of course, England’s very own ghostbuster.
When England needed something to happen to recover an opportunity that was galloping rapidly away, Archer did what all good paranormals do, he delivered via another dimension. This was not the 90-miler version that lit up Lord’s, only the one ball tripping the speedometer at 90mph-plus. It turns out the geared down version is just as scary, striking early and late to snaffle his first five-fer in only his second Test.
Archer, who took six wickets in all, again sent down more than a third of the overs bowled by England, a spinner’s workload and unsustainable in the long term according to the great West Indian speedster Michael Holding. That is an issue for another day in the thinking of a captain experiencing increasing anxiety out in the middle. Joe Root’s only concern was a scoreboard turning at more than six an over in the hands of David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne during Australia’s brief period of plenty.
Having won the toss and inserted in conditions made for plunder with ball in hand, England would have taken 179 all out. It’s just that it did not look possible until Root recalled Archer into the attack in the final session of a day disrupted by three hefty weather interruptions.
Australia rode their luck. At one point in the morning Stuart Broad made scrambled egg of a bamboozled Warner, beating the helpless Australian’s bat five times on the spin in a ridiculous spell of bendy bowling. With due respect to Broad, it was Archer the Headingley crowd had come to see. And a rousing chorus they gave him.
Since we last saw Archer only four days ago at Lord’s we have learned almost everything there is to know about how he delivers a ball, the full anatomical deconstruction. The rate of acceleration to the crease is ideal but rare, the front leg pivot is bio-mechanically perfect for purpose and the height from which he releases the ball generates that extra zip and bounce.
His first ball was a wide taster, his second unplayable, his third unplayable. Marcus Harris, in for Cameron Bancroft, tried, of course, in that passive presenting-but-not-really-presenting the bat kind of way. Archer thudded another into Harris’s thigh pad and with his last ball of the over was flicked for the first runs of the day off a ball that strayed on leg stump.
Broad continued the barrage in the third over, Warner reduced to guesswork as he sought desperately to avoid humiliation. The ball beat the bat three times. Warner could only smile an ironic rictus at the mortification he was enduring. The batsmen were involved in an unequal struggle, the murky meteorology working heavily in the bowlers’ favour.
It was a triumph of sorts to survive so long, a full 15 minutes before Harris offered the edge to an Archer rapier. The moment coincided with the rain returning, Warner dashing for cover past celebrating England players as they converged on Archer to convey bacchanal appreciation.
Warner spent the break looking at the horrors of the morning on his laptop. He came out with a guard nearer off stump and standing out of his crease, but no nearer mastering Broad’s best stuff, the bat still coming down the wrong line. The lad couldn’t buy an edge, which was of course his great good fortune. Root reached for a fifth slipper for Warner to pile the pressure on a technique experiencing increasing levels of decomposition.
There comes a point, however, when humiliation reaches saturation, when you can’t possibly feel any worse. This is the moment when responses become less self conscious and you give yourself a chance. As the ball began to lose its shine and its hard shell, the venom count reduced. By late afternoon when the weather finally relented, the non-Archer periods of Stokes and Woakes were both more comfortable and more productive.
Warner began to rattle along ably supported by Labuschagne, whose introduction to Test cricket might be considered only marginally less sensational than Archer’s. You get rid of one Steve Smith and get another with this fella. Labuschagne was the penultimate wicket to fall after contributing an adhesive, Smith-like 81, and is unlikely to be the man to give way should the latter-day Bradman return in Manchester.
With Root reaching his wits end he called for his silver bullet, Archer finding Warner’s edge to break the spell. In the next over Broad cleaned out Travis Head with a beauty that clipped off stump. An over later Australia were reeling once more at 139-5 after Archer nipped out Matthew Wade, played on.
Skipper Tim Paine kept Labuschagne company for nine overs to stem the bleeding but he could not alter the direction of travel. Archer was now back in full supernatural mode, ripping out the tail to leave an indelible mark on another marvellous day of Ashes cricket.