Steve Smith ruled out of the third Test. There can be no bigger or relevant headline as England and Australia head to Headingley, Leeds for the third installment of the Ashes battle.
Smith has been a beacon for the visitors hitting a purple patch scoring at least a half century (144, 142, 92) every time he’s walked out to the middle. Without Smith’s heroics, Australia could well be 0-1 or even 0-2 down leading up to the third Test. In the first Test, Smith’s knock resurrected Australia from a precarious position at 122/8 to a handy 284. Even in the second Test, a gritty 92 ensured England were handed just a paltry eight-run lead.
If Australia had a man leading from the front with the bat, England found a new hero with the ball in the second Test at Lord’s.
Jofra Archer’s impact in the World Cup and since has been a rather interesting one. Prior to the mega event, the Barbados-born pacer was unsure of his participation, eventually becoming a revelation in England’s triumph with his express pace.
Archer was part of the England’s Ashes squad but barring an injury to frontline speedster James Anderson, probably wouldn’t have a got a look in this early in the series. It is now the same man who has negated the visitors’ potency to a notable extent, though not in the most graceful manner.
In the 76th over of Australia’s first innings, Archer steamed in and saw Smith pull the first ball of the over for four through square leg. Off the very next delivery, Smith was flattened out and lay first face on the Lord’s turf. The cherry darted towards Smith at 92.4 MPH and the former Australian skipper was unsuccessful in getting out of the way, suffering a sickening blow.
Such was the damage that Smith was unable to take the field for the second innings as Marnus Labuschagne made history as the first concussion substitute in cricket. The clouds in Leeds will only cast more gloom on Australia as Smith has been in scintillating form this series, scoring 37 per cent of his team’s runs in the three innings that he has featured in. Only on one occasion has Smith contributed less than the individual average of the top seven batsmen.
Ironically Labuschagne was also welcomed by Archer with a clattering blow to his helmet grille. The Queenslander can expect more of the same as he prepares to play an integral part in the game. But where he bats could be decided by the management come crunch time.
Labuschagne has been a vital cog in Glamorgan’s wheels in the County Championship Division Two scoring a phenomenal 1114 runs at an average of 65.52. That hasn’t been all as the part-time leg spinner also grabbed 19 wickets to end as his side’s third highest wicket-taker.
Smith’s absence isn’t the only worrying sign for the Australians considering the woeful form of the top three – David Warner, Cameron Bancroft, and Usman Khawaja. The trio have averaged 13 in the first Test and 12.5 in the second but with the scoreboard still in their favour, Australia could opt to give them another go.
Khawaja’s failings against the swinging ball have been epitomised by the fact that the southpaw averages a miserable 20.50 from five outings in the Old Blighty. If Australia make the unlikely decision of replacing Khawaja, Marcus Harris is waiting in the ranks. Harris has been a part of the warm-up games registering one century and two half-centuries in six outings.
In the bowling department, Australia’s rotation policy could also pave the way for Mitchell Starc with either Pat Cummins or Peter Siddle being given a rest.
England have their own concerns pertaining to the top order as batsmen Jason Roy and Joe Root are yet to get going. Collectively, the two right-handers have scored 149 runs in four innings.
English coach Trevor Bayliss, on Tuesday, suggested that there could be a shake-up in the batting line-up and Roy pushed to the middle order if the need arose. “Personally, I think he probably is suited to the middle order. But we have selected him in the top of the order because of his form in the one-day and experience in the one-day team, playing international cricket,” reasoned the Australian.
But it is Rory Burns that has been the standout performer in the top-order with a couple of gritty displays. Prior to The Ashes, England faced Ireland in four-day Test during which Australian legend Mark Waugh mocked Burns’ batting comparing him to a tail-ender. The response from Burns was swift and apt as he stroked his way to a ton in the first Test. The onus at the top will once again fall on the young shoulders of the Surrey batsman.
Barring a couple of standout performances, both sides have been struggling with the batting across both Tests. With Headingley having the propensity to aide pacers in the first two innings, it will once again be the pace battery that will be the cynosure come Thursday.
Headingley hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for the English in recent years. They have played 10 Tests at the venue and won just three, while being on the wrong side of the result on six occasions.
England’s most potent weapon – Archer -- will look to flatten Australian once and for all while scripting his name in Ashes folklore. Conversely, Australia will know that one more victory will leave England deflated and propel them towards a famous series triumph.