1) The second Ashes Test: Archer to Smith (Aus 203-6)
It was one of the all-time great performances. Steve Smith scored 144 and 142 in his first Test back after the ban, his mastery of the art of batting complete: the contemptuous pushes and clips to rotate the strike; the boundaries striking a tattoo on the boundary boards as the acceleration towards a winning position inevitably came; the Bradmanesque stats stacking higher and higher. If you couldn’t admire the skill – some, unaccountably, still can’t – the will was undeniable. This is what greatness looks like.
It was all happening again at Lord’s, except that it wasn’t. Sure, the numbers were clicking over but England had a weapon, albeit one that was curiously subdued until Jofra Archer started to bowl very fast at Smith and – as every batsman in history has shown (even the man up on that lonely statistical summit) – the world looks very different when a lump of leather and cork is released 20 yards away at 90mph+ with a licence to …
… Nobody was quite sure what had happened, but we could all see the outcome. You didn’t need to look. You could hear the hush, sense the anxiety, feel your own heart beating too strongly. Smith wasn’t just down, he was head down in the dirt – and nobody chooses to be there. I had Isa Guha and Mitchell Johnson in my earpiece doing their jobs (brilliantly in the circumstances) but, for a long long time, since time really does stand still for onlookers, we waited.
Smith was standing up, the concern on the field and in the media centre eased and words came. Words such as “concussion protocols” and “impact on the back of the head” and “he’ll have to go off, surely”.
And (though this might not sit well with some) once we knew we were back in the world of cricket and not the world of nightmares, there also came a warm glow too – after England had been roughed up on two successive tours in Australia, we had a little fire of our own.
The game has always demanded courage, sometimes to a reckless extent and Smith reminded us of that. And Archer reminded us that the bat should not, and would not, lord it over the ball all day, every day. They’ll got at it again soon – don’t miss it.
2. ‘Wait. Come one!’
Jack Leach had battled back from remodelling his action, had a Test match 92 in his locker and was playing for his country. But there’s something about a batsman in glasses, with the bald head shiny under the lid and essaying a homespun technique every club cricketer could recognise, that invites a patronising tone.
For all the quips, the giggles behind the hand and the readiness to press the “oh well, it was good while it lasted” button, this was a man of substance, batting with a man for whom once-in-a-lifetime innings arrived with bewildering frequency.
Ben Stokes had done the heavy lifting, his blitz of boundaries so tilting the world on its axis that everyone around him was making errors – that’s what pressure does, the other side of the carpe diem cliche. He wasn’t just walking the high wire; he was turning somersaults – the only man who couldn’t see the drop.
But cricket’s one-man shows need two men and there was Jack Leach, asking for a moment while he polished his glasses and got his heart rate down to, what, 200 beats per minute? For an hour he had run hard, sometimes recklessly and blocked the straight ones and missed the wide ones. His 17th ball brought his one run, his notch in the scorebook, his pub quiz immortality as the scores were levelled.
Naturally, the next ball was pumped to the boundary and Stokes ensured he would be on the front pages as well as the back for the second time in a few weeks and the Australians did themselves credit (as they always do in such circumstances) by acknowledging their vanquisher with the outstretched hand and words of congratulation.
1* doesn’t look like much – but it’s a lot more than 0. Ask Jack Leach. Or Ben Stokes.
3. The torch passes
Dale Steyn was the preeminent fast bowler of the decade, genuinely quick, with the ability to move the ball in the air and off the seam and a ferocious sense of competition that drove him to 439 Test wickets and a case for being the most prolific RF or LF (as opposed to RFM or LFM) bowler of all-time.
The great South African retired in August and left a gap in the argument for the decade to come. His fellow countryman, Kagiso Rabada, has stated his credentials, so too England’s Bajan trident, Jofra Archer. Patrick Cummins of Australia probably leads the pretenders for now and one is never far away from a 16-year-old sensation from Pakistan (22 yards away in Brisbane for Cummins), but perhaps the true heir to Steyn’s crown grew up in the unlikely surroundings of the bowlers’ graveyard, Ahmedabad. Equally unlikely, where Steyn’s eyes would blaze and his blood almost burst through his veins with his fastbowlerness, Jasprit Bumrah smiles his beatific smile and seems permanently surprised at his brilliance.
And brilliance it is. Figures of 5-7 against the West Indies in August sent me scrurrying to YouTube and there was that dainty run before the explosively fast, unnaturally stiff armed delivery that no coach would ever teach (nor, these days, adjust). But there was something else too – the strange other-worldliness that the very best in sports, in any area of life really, can conjure. How do you play this ball? Or this one? Or, especially, this one!
Fast bowling is a precarious profession. You’re never more than a stress fracture away from months out or a back strain away from a compromised action. So we should always treasure them while their lights burn brightest. And no light burns brighter than Jasprit Bumrah’s – or it will once he’s back from injury.