Manchester: Steve Smith will be stepping back into a “brutal” Ashes series on Wednesday in which batsmen have been hit 38 times above the waist, with England insisting there will be no let-up in the short-pitched bowling on the fastest pitch of the summer.
Stuart Broad, playing in his seventh Ashes series, has never known batsmen’s courage to have been tested like it has this summer and cannot wait to see Jofra Archer bowling to Smith again.
Archer and Smith traded digs at each other last week and, with the series 1-1 with two Tests to play, their confrontation at Old Trafford could decide the Specsavers Ashes series.
For Archer, the memory of Smith lying prone on the pitch at Lord’s after striking him on the neck should take second place to how he was hopping around, struggling to play the short ball in the period leading up to his concussion injury. It was the first time England had rattled Smith in Ashes cricket as Archer tested his nerve with bowling that reached 96mph.
Archer has hit batsmen on the upper body or head 12 times in this series, three more than the next bowler, Pat Cummins, with Australian batsmen finding it hard to pick the length of his bouncer.
Broad said: “It was a nasty hit, wasn’t it? First thing, it’s great Steve is OK and coming back. But Test cricket is a brutal sport, it’s a sport that countries go hell for leather against each other. I’m sure when Steve comes in, Jofra will be in Rooty’s ear wanting the ball, no doubt about that.
“That’s the intensity Test cricket brings, it’s theatre. I’ll be excited when Jofra asks for that ball and Steve comes in. It was a really tasty bit of cricket at Lord’s, Smith was on 70 or 80, playing beautifully, and Jofra went from 84mph to 95mph. That sort of cricket is awesome to watch on the telly or from the stands but when you’re stood at mid-on, it’s pretty special. Hopefully, we can have a battle like that again. There will be a period in this game where those two come together again and, touch wood, I’m on the pitch to view it.”
Batsmen have been hurt at Old Trafford in the past, including Broad. He suffered two black eyes and a broken nose facing Indian pace bowler Varun Aaron in 2014 and was still suffering nightmares almost a year later. He needed counselling to help him recover from the psychological fear of being hit again and his batting has never really recovered.
Eoin Morgan was concussed by a Mitchell Starc bouncer in a One Day International there in 2015 and Australia used the tactic against him in the World Cup this summer.
Smith faced lots of short balls in the nets at Old Trafford on Monday but nothing can replicate Archer’s bouncer, and if he runs in from the James Anderson End it could be hard to pick it out of the murky background of the pavilion, which was also a factor at Lord’s.
He does not have to look far for advice. Justin Langer, the Australia coach, was a brave opening batsman who suffered concussion five times during his Test career. Ian Bishop struck him on his Test debut with such a hard blow that fellow batsman David Boon, one of the toughest men ever to play for Australia, urged him to go off retired hurt. But the most serious injury was caused by a Makhaya Ntini delivery on a lightning-fast pitch in Johannesburg that put Langer in hospital with concussion. He later admitted he had to go through a “horrible” time facing bouncers from a bowling machine before he could play again.
“When you get hit, it’s always a little voice on your shoulder,” he said. “I also know about Steve Smith and the really good players who have to have strategies to score runs and not get out — it’s the same to not get hit. You’ve got to have a good strategy and he works the game out better than anyone I’ve ever met. If anyone’s going to get over any little demons it’ll be Stephen.”
It has been a bruising series for batsmen with both sides using the short ball as a tactic to both take wickets and undermine confidence. Australia have dished it out to Rory Burns, Joe Denly and Chris Woakes in particular while Archer has given Joe Root a weapon to fire back with.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played in a series where so many people have been hit in the head,” said Broad. “Obviously, both sets of fast bowlers are bowling well and looking in good rhythm. The pitches have maybe played slightly untrue, so a bit two-paced. One will skid through and one will slow down.
“It feels like the doctors are running out every 10 overs. I’ve never played in an Ashes series as closely matched as this one, man for man, the teams are so close and you can see that with punches being thrown by both sides and how we’re soaking it up. You’re turning up each morning desperate for a good day but you don’t know what will happen.”
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019