Root wastes golden opportunity to deliver decisive Ashes blow
Captain did not unleash Archer against Smith England fail to make the most of early superiority
A five-test series is a test of skills in all conditions, and those in Manchester for the opening day of the fourth Test were extreme. Cricket was played in squalls of rain and the wind tugged at players’ clothes like an imploring infant.
Australia coped better with these conditions than England did, reaching 170 for three on an easy-paced pitch in the half-day of the play, but then batsmen usually cope with a strident wind better than bowlers do. Earth, fire, water – no element disrupts the bowler more than the air which blows him off course.
Even so, on a day which might have driven a March hare mad, England lacked the urgency which their supporters might have reasonably expected after the epic one-wicket win at Headingley.
Joe Root is not a confrontational person, and he did not confront Steve Smith on his return from concussion with the bowling that was most likely to reactivate his apprehensions – not immediately at any rate, not until the spectre had returned to haunt England again.
Specifically, after making allowances for the horrible conditions, Root did not maximise Archer. It should be borne in mind that Archer is like an old-fashioned fast bowler – Fred Trueman or Brian Statham – in that he does not waste energy warming-up: two or three looseners on the outfield then straight into his work, so all his bowling is done in the middle.
Archer’s first three overs were therefore tentative, his speed in the early 80s mph, while Stuart Broad struck twice. Broad dismissed David Warner second ball, for the fifth time this series, when Warner was trying to withdraw his bat; and one of Broad’s more impassioned, hand-waving appeals wrung a guilty verdict out of Kumar Dharmasena when Marcus Harris could as easily have been reprieved.
So when Smith returned to the Ashes stage, after reaching No1 in the world Test batting rankings during his one-test absence, Archer was warming up. In his fourth over he cranked up to 87mph, and in his fifth over to 89mph – not his Lord’s pace, but that which sufficed for his sixwicket haul at Headingley.
And that was it. It was the duel that wasn’t.
Archer came off after bowling seven balls at Smith – and Root did not call on his new strike bowler for the rest of the morning, when rain was reliably forecast for soon after lunch. It was the time to work his two strike bowlers hard, knowing that a breather would soon come, and that on Sept 16 Archer and Broad can put up their feet until England leave for South Africa shortly before Christmas.
With the series balanced at oneall, Australia tottering again at 28 for two (only once has an Australian opener reached 20 this series), and Smith untested by short balls in the middle since being bombarded by Archer at Lord’s, the moment was there to be seized. Never mind analysts, coaches, game plans and con
sideration in spreading the load, it was time for predatory animal instinct and going for the jugular of Australia’s champion, before he had regained his poise.
Ben Stokes, in his first public role since his Headingley heroism, succeeded Archer at the James Anderson End – though it is to be hoped end is not the operative word – and tried to rattle Smith, but Stokes was left kicking the turf. The bouncers were too short, while a couple of short balls did not get high enough and were pulled by Smith for four.
Soon the momentum which England had brought across the Pennines was blown away on the wind, like the bails in the final session. Marnus Labuschagne continued to benefit from all he had learned during his 10 championship matches for Glamorgan, and scored as speedily as Smith.
It was forgivable, given the gale, that England’s bowlers were picked off on both sides of the wicket; but not the failure to seize that moment, which will never present itself again, not in this series.
Of the 26 overs before lunch, Broad bowled seven, Jack Leach six and Archer five: in no sense did that add up. If Archer did not want more than five in his opening spell, the time to strike was straight after the drinks break, by bringing him back at the other end.
Instead of noon, it was 4pm when Root brought him back, after the loss of the afternoon to rain. Smith by then was re-embedded, as quirky and quick into position as ever, making England’s finest look military medium. He cannot yet be rated the finest batsman ever to play cricket – he has bettered Don Bradman in scoring eight consecutive Ashes half-centuries if not otherwise – but he is the finest batsman ever to play French cricket: cheston, Smith even straight-drove a four, and threw himself off his feet for the wackiest cover-drive, by extending his rubbery limbs.
Craig Overton grew up running uphill and into Atlantic gales at West Buckland School in north Devon, while his twin Jamie enjoyed the opposite end, so he at least was in his element.
Overton’s inswinger defeated Labuschagne, clipping off stump, but it was an all too rare example of England finding the right line and length, and if they do not rally quickly on the second morning, the Ashes will be irretrievable.
Missed chance: Joe Root went easy on Australia captain Steve Smith