Steve Smith’s air of invincibility finally cracked, just a little, as the combination of flu and a vibrant bowling performance allowed England take a handy lead in the final Ashes Test.
Every other batsman in this low-scoring series would have been more than happy with Smith’s knock of 80 on day two at The Oval, but for Australia’s masterful No 4 that represented his lowest contribution of a campaign in which he has piled on 751 runs at an average north of 125.
A rare misjudgement saw him pinned by Chris Woakes with work still to be done and England went on to dismiss the tourists for 225.
A lead of first-innings lead of 69 was extended by nine after new father Joe Denly and Rory Burns survived four dicey overs at the close.
“I’ve been struggling a little bit today, I’ve got a little bit of the flu,” Smith said after the unusual experience of not conquering all before him.
“I was loading up on the cold and flu medicine throughout the day and just tried to stay as focused as I could be, but unfortunately I couldn’t bat with the tail for as long as I would have liked.”
To be honest, he didn’t look himself, he didn’t look as nailed on as he usually is. I guess we did bowl well but he didn’t seem the same way.Jofra Archer on Steve Smith
Jofra Archer led the way for England with figures of 6-62, fitting reward for persistently hostile fast bowling that left no margin for error.
He has enjoyed some wonderful exchanges with Smith in recent weeks and sensed his rival’s equilibrium was off, even though he managed to produce the top score of the game.
Told of Smith’s predicament, Archer said: “Fair enough – I knew there was something.
“To be honest, he didn’t look himself, he didn’t look as nailed on as he usually is. I guess we did bowl well but he didn’t seem the same way.
“But it’s weird you know? Every time he bats, I don’t know what it is – he literally cannot get out. If he plays a bad shot, the ball just lands in no-man’s land. The whole series. Obviously he’s a good batter, he’s got a good temperament, but I just don’t know what it is. The ball just never goes to hand.”
Archer would be well justified in talking up his own achievements, particularly as he is now England’s top wicket-taker in his debut series.
He has taken 22 at 17.27 but preferred to share the acclaim with Burns, whose stunning one-handed gully catch off Peter Siddle wrapped up the Australia innings.
“When I saw him hit the ball, I thought it was four....then I didn’t think it was going to carry either,” said Archer.
“It was a special catch and it was even better to get us off the field. Sometimes if you don’t get them they come back tomorrow and get another 30-40 runs, so I don’t think we should underestimate how good that catch was and the position it puts us in.
“We can take that momentum into tomorrow now and hopefully build our lead.”
It fell to Smith to wax lyrical about the paceman, who previously forced his absence from the third Test with concussion.
“He is a quality performer,” he added. “He has two five-fors in four Test matches and you don’t get guys bowling 90mph growing on trees.
“With the skill set he has got he is a terrific bowler.”