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To Lord’s on Saturday having bought a last-minute ticket on the promise of rain forecasts for the first three days of the Test. A fifth day ticket is a real punt nowadays, with only just over half of Test matches making it to the full length of the match compared with three-quarters in the 1980s. I bought for Saturday in the expectation that I might see a pivotal day in the series – with England 1-0 down after defeat at Edgbaston and Australia 80-4 in reply to England’s first-innings total of 258, and with the immovable Steve Smith still in and Matthew Wade (who looked well-put together in Birmingham) there with him, but only one further recognised batsman to come: the captain, Tim Paine.
A decisive shift in England or Australia’s favour felt possible. The longer form of the game is played at such a frenetic pitch that Test cricket so often now has mad days, with wickets falling at an unseemly pace and cavalier shots the norm. But the morning was a reassuringly slow affair, with the pace of the game in step with the sedate atmosphere, the “Lord’s hum”, punctuated by the occasional outbreak of applause at the end of an over or after a boundary.
Australia lost one wicket and scored slowly. England’s senior paceman Stuart Broad (who now sits at a lofty 454 Test wickets over his whole career, now only just behind the Greats – Courtney Walsh, Glenn McGrath and his friend and compatriot James Anderson – in the wicket taking stakes) bowled accurately and was rewarded with some success, with Matthew Wade caught at slip, prodding at a full ball. Paine and Smith then built a steady-as-you-go looking partnership before lunch.
Things were rather different in the afternoon. During the interval, Jofra Archer had clearly been told to go out and bowl quick. Line and length be damned – just fling it down and see what happens. That’s nothing too extraordinary in Test cricket – the Aussie quicks had subjected the English tail to a barrage of short bowling in their first innings, with plenty of stuff aimed straight at the body in a bid to hurt, unsettle and discombobulate. But the spell Archer proceeded to bowl had a completely different quality to anything I’ve ever seen, in person or on television.
His delivery arc (right arm up, left arm across, and then right arm pulling back and over) seemed to extend upwards by just a couple of inches from his normal action. His body became semi-elasticated, with the ball propelled almost from beyond his own physical limits. He was charting way above the 88mph to 90mph speeds he bowls at in the main, creeping up to 92, 94, even 96 mph. He hit Steve Smith on the arm then he hit Paine quite a few times. The Lord’s hum was replaced by a steady roar. Archer was a falcon high above shadowing the noon sun; Smith, ducking, fending, quivering like a hare caught in the open. And it was all over, Smith hit on the neck, a death blow I thought at first – after all, Hector was killed by Achilles by a spear thrust through a chink in his armour just above the shoulder.
At points, something, and I’m not sure I understand what it was, began to bend around Archer as he ran in, flickered for a moment and then disappeared. Something numinous? The “sacred”? Perhaps; perhaps not.
There is a tendency to think of ecstasy in sport as moments of unification, in which things momentarily cohere. They can give a facsimile of that, the collective exuberance triggered by England’s World Cup wins for example in football, rugby, and now cricket.
Sometimes sport does quite the opposite – it explodes, bursts out, and forces consciousness into conflict with itself, annihilating the many fictions we are burdened by. Over and over again, I felt myself fly out to Archer’s arm as it turned over, willing the ball through the air. This is a perilous business. To feel that your “inner life” is pinned to something else is to begin to understand, as Sartre once wrote, that consciousness is not in here, is not some “lonely refuge” you make for yourself, but “outside, in the world, among others… on the road, in the town, in the crowd… a thing among things”, and that, even on a sunny afternoon in St John’s Wood, it’s possible for your experience of the world and your place in it to be profoundly unsettled.
This is what Archer can do – and he did it in his very first Test match. Quite extraordinary.