The fact that Smith is not playing means that it is not really a continuation of ‘Steve Smith Ashes Series’ – more of a stand-alone fixture, you might say, before the great man returns for the fourth Test at Old Trafford on September 4.
Smith’s absence through injury after being hit by a bouncer from Jofra Archer during the Lord’s Test has deprived this contest of its central character.
Consequently, it feels a bit like watching a U2 concert without Bono, or a screening of 101 Dalmatians without Cruella De Vil; an essential piece of the production is missing. In the absence of Smith, the Australian batsman who has produced successive innings of 144, 142 and 92, England have a clear chance to level the series after defeat in the opening Test at Edgbaston.
To that effect, they need as much play as possible to force a result, but rain and bad light permitted only 52.1 overs as Headingley’s first Ashes Test for 10 years got off to a stuttering start.
However, during that time, the match moved on apace as Australia were bowled out for 179 after being sent into bat, Marnus Labuschagne – Smith’s replacement – top-scoring with 74 and David Warner contributing 61, the pair adding 111 for the third-wicket in 23 overs.
For England, Archer captured 6-45, his maiden Test five-fer, which rescued an otherwise curate’s egg display from the home side.
There may come a time when ‘Steve Smith’s Ashes Series’ metamorphoses more fully into ‘Jofra Archer’s Ashes Series’ – and not just because the pace bowler has put Smith out of this match.
Archer it was who, with England making something of a horlicks of helpful conditions, as Australia reached 136-2 inside 32 overs, suddenly produced a 90mph snorter to have Warner caught behind – the first of three wickets for three runs which changed the tenor and tempo of the day.
The ability to conjure something apparently out of nothing, like a magician materialising a dove out of thin air, may yet see England become something greater than a curate’s egg team in the not-too-distant future.
Archer could never be in charge of something like the Brexit process, say, as he makes things happen; no cause can be considered lost when the game is alive and the ball is in his hand.
Only four overs were possible in the opening session, time enough for Archer to strike with the final ball in that passage of play.
Bowling with the new Emerald Stand at his back, cricket’s man-of-the-moment squared-up Marcus Harris with a delivery that took the edge on its way to wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow, Harris having been drafted in for the out-of-sorts Cameron Bancroft.
When play resumed 90 minutes later, with Headingley buried beneath slate-grey skies, Australia slipped to 25-2 when Usman Khawaja was caught down the leg-side off Stuart Broad.
It was one of the worst balls delivered by the excellent Broad, Khawaja’s dismissal confirmed by Ultra Edge after he was initially adjudged not-out on the field.
Indeed, the principal feature of the game’s early exchanges was the fact that Broad had Warner on toast. Five times in succession he beat the left-hander with sumptuous deliveries before Warner got off the mark with a leg-side single.
Having survived that examination more by luck than judgement, Warner showed his skill by clipping Broad to the leg-side boundary and then easing Archer to the extra-cover rope in front of the East Stand.
Archer was slightly down on pace from his concussion-inducing exploits at Lord’s, somewhere in the region of the mid-to-late 80s – which is to say pacy enough.
Archer adapted his game intelligently to conditions, pitching the ball up and giving it maximum opportunity to do its worst.
After two further weather interruptions, including when the light seemed perfectly playable, conditions improved to allow 34.1 overs before an extended 7.30pm finish.
But Archer’s dismissal of Warner changed the mood and was followed in quick succession by two more wickets for Broad, who bowled Travis Head with a jaffa and Matthew Wade via an unfortunate deflection that disturbed the leg bail.
Chris Woakes had Tim Paine lbw on review before Archer had James Pattinson – recalled for Peter Siddle – caught at first slip and Pat Cummins caught behind on review. Ben Stokes pinned Labuschagne with a full toss before Archer, fittingly, had the last word, trapping Nathan Lyon as Australia lost their last five wickets for 17 runs.