After five transcendent days at Lord’s, it felt like everything and nothing had changed. Nothing because as stumps were drawn the score remained 1-0, Australia imperfectly retaining the upper hand, England still searching for answers. Everything because as the teams decamp north to Leeds ahead of next week’s third Test, it’s hard to escape the sensation that this is now a substantially, spectacularly different encounter to the one that began.
Scars have been unsealed, knowns made unknown. And above all, a series that seemed almost to creep into our lives in the World Cup slipstream now has a character and electricity all of its own. As England pushed thrillingly for victory in the dying light, as Jack Leach ragged the ball out of the rough and Jofra Archer tugged at the cloths of immortality and Joe Denly flew through the evening sky to pluck a miracle out of the air, as Australia clung with grubby fingernails to the precipice, here was a reminder of the glories of the longest format, even if it owed its drama to having been shortened by rain.
In a way, this game was the photographic negative of last month’s World Cup final: one that crackled and sizzled throughout its length, only to putter into drawn inconsequence at its end. But what a Test this was: cricket that made your spine tingle and your stomach churn, cricket of guts and gore, days that thrilled and transfixed; days that consisted of very little other than staring at wet covers, wondering if it was too early to go and get a second lunch. By the end, you suspect it wasn’t just Steve Smith in need of a long lie down in a cool, dark room.
Smith’s concussion at the hands of Archer – the non-shot heard around the world – was clearly the fulcrum of this game. Will it prove the fulcrum of the series? The parallels with Glenn McGrath’s unfortunate foxtrot with a stray cricket ball at Edgbaston in 2005 are probably a touch premature: even if Smith’s injury forces him out of Headingley, it’s safe to assume he will return at full fitness, his thirst for runs undimmed. But Archer’s orchestral debut have given England what they so badly lacked at the outset: fresh hope, and a fresh tactic.
And so, even taking into account the uneven bounce and the sharp spin for the excellent Leach, it feels right not to chastise them too strongly for failing to force victory, nor to give Australia undue credit for surviving what was essentially a session and a half. That England would even be in this position seemed a remote possibility at the drizzly dawn of day five, and was due in large part to the brilliance of Ben Stokes, who in scoring his first Ashes century since 2013 finally managed the synthesis of brawn and brain that has eluded him ever since his night in the cells in Bristol.
Stokes’s unbeaten 115, in tandem with some late agricultural hewing by Jonny Bairstow, allowed Joe Root to set Australia a notional target of 267 in 48 overs. And when Archer extracted David Warner and Usman Khawaja within his first three overs, bringing the concussion substitute Marnus Labuschagne to the crease, England were beginning to mass at a door that had swung tantalisingly ajar.
But Labuschagne had other ideas. A South African by birth and a Queenslander by upbringing, you might say he has toughness in his DNA. And despite being conked on the helmet by Archer early in his innings, he produced a half-century of stirring character and scintillating courage, standing up to the pace of Archer, negotiating the swing of Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad using the skills he picked up during a fine summer at Glamorgan. His partnership of 85 with the much-maligned Travis Head was probably the difference between survival and defeat.
There was a twist. Of course there was a twist. Leach fortuitously dismissed Labuschagne via the thigh of Jos Buttler at short leg and a dubious low catch by Denly at mid-wicket. Matthew Wade nudged the ball to short leg, and when Denly took a magnificent flying grab to dismiss Tim Paine, England had around half an hour to get four wickets. Chances came and went – an optimistic LBW review against Pat Cummins, an agonising low dropped catch by Rory Burns at short leg – but as the sun disappeared and the floodlights began to take over, Australia began to breathe again. Hands were shaken shortly before half past seven. Australia had withstood everything England could throw at them, and were – just about – still standing.
And so, what now? To Leeds, where the emergence of Archer and the probable absence of Smith may appear to give England the upper hand. But their top order still looks brittle and their catching shabby, while Root appears to be mired in a funk from which there is no quick escape. Meanwhile Australia’s top order still looks brittle and their catching shabby, while Warner appears to be mired in a funk from which there is no quick escape. And so, what happens now is anybody guess. One thing is for certain: a series that felt quietly inessential a week ago now feels vibrantly, vitally alive.