It’s a been a fair few years now since Australia’s formidable Test record at Lord’s has been factored into the Ashes build-up – consecutive thumpings in 2009 and 2013 rather punctured their proud boast of not having lost at the ground since 1934. But on their last visit here in 2015, they atoned for those setbacks with a brutal 405-run victory – with a certain Steven Smith leading the line with 215 from 346 balls.
And now they are back at their favourite home from home, with Smith exuding an invincibility on English soil not seen since Graeme Smith’s extraordinary awakening in the summer of 2003, and England – for all the hype and expectation surrounding Jofra Archer – looking as vulnerable in a home Ashes campaign as they have been in a generation.
It’s not simply that England are 1-0 down in the series – that’s nothing new for this set of players, as Root was happy to point out on the eve of the contest. They’ve been behind on home soil three times in the last six years, and recovered on each occasion, to beat India in 2014, and draw with Pakistan twice in 2016 and 2018.
But this time, the concern is the gulf between hope and expectation that appears to be opening up between the two teams, for all that Root was setting out to be bullish on the eve of the contest.
“We’re in English conditions, we really back ourselves to come back strong after last week,” Root said, after it had been pointed out that England have now lost six of their last seven Tests against Australia dating back to 2015, with only a bore-draw in Melbourne for respite. “I’m expecting a big response from the boys. We’ve proven that we do that, time and time again, when we’ve been defeated, especially at home. Last week will have hurt everyone and everyone will be absolutely desperate to go and win this week. And I expect nothing less.”
That’s a lot of expectation to shoehorn into one answer. But does Root really expect England to perform better than they did in the crunch moments at Edgbaston, or he is merely hoping that they will? Does he expect their misfiring middle-order to find renewed resolve with the series in the balance, or is he simply hoping that that is the case?
Or, to flip the sentiment on its head: Do England really expect Archer – and to a lesser extent, Jack Leach – to add a sting to their attack that Smith in particular so expertly drew in the first Test? Of course they don’t … though they fervently hope that they might. “He’s got a good bouncer and bowls at a good pace consistently, so I’m sure he’ll cause problems on most surfaces,” said Root of Archer. “Hopefully, he can exploit this one.”
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Instead, it is Australia who really expects … and that has tended to be a deadly mindset when these two sides have clashed in the past. Whereas England tend to be a danger to themselves whenever they try to be frontrunners in a series, getting on top and staying on top is far more in tune with the Australian psyche, especially one that has been rebooted by a brains trust including both Justin Langer and Steve Waugh.
In fact, Australia’s plans are falling so serenely into place that, in resting James Pattinson while tantalising both Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood with the carrot of a Lord’s comeback, the management have been able to cast one eye towards next week’s third Test at Headingley, even while ensuring their chosen 12 keep their thoughts firmly fixed in the present.
“It’s always nice from a captaincy and a leadership point of view when you’ve got two senior players who are world-class left out and they cop it on the chin, run drinks, and train their backsides off in the lunch hours and tea breaks,” said Australia’s captain, Tim Paine. “It sets a really good example for the rest of our team.”
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It’s certainly not a policy that guarantees success, but as a mitigation against failure, it seems light-years removed from England’s current suck-it-and-see approach – one which, in the penultimate month of this most exhausting of summers, seems now to be relying more on a Pakistani-style quest for Haal than any actual long-term planning.
And who’s to say, just like Pakistan on any given day – or like Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad on the final day of the Ireland Test last month – a combination of rich talent and faint desperation won’t propel this set of players to extraordinary and series-turning heights. There’s certainly little doubt that, pound for pound and irrespective of fatigue and motivation, a team containing world-class individuals such as Root, Archer, Ben Stokes and Jason Roy ought to be a match for any opponent.
But, just as Australia couldn’t be any more at home at Lord’s – moseying around the pavilion as if to the manor born, and with their kids performing cartwheels on the square as they saunter back from the nets – so it is England who most resemble a put-upon touring team.
One Test down out of five, and among their fast-bowling stocks, already Mark Wood, Olly Stone and James Anderson are sidelined, with only the latter a realistic chance of being fit before the end of the series. And while Joe Root’s promotion to No. 3 has applied a band-aid to their longstanding top-order flimsiness, the recent absence of Championship cricket makes the sourcing of battle-ready replacements as problematic as it would have been had the series been taking place Down Under.
“A big responsibility comes on the players, making sure that they look after themselves and keep themselves as fit as possible,” said Root. “Throughout the rest of this campaign, there are certain things which you can’t control and sometimes you get thrown a bad hand and you have to deal with it. And we’ve certainly responded well to that in the past when that’s happened. And we’ve got to make sure that we do exactly the same this time. We’ve got some very talented players and bowlers that are fully capable of taking 20 wickets this week.”
And yet, to riff on a recurring theme of the past month, England have already scaled their Everest for this summer, and in such glorious fashion too, on this very ground. Australia, by contrast, over-achieved in reaching the World Cup semi-finals, but only now are they really beginning to hit their stride. They’ve not won the Ashes in England for 18 years and counting, but much like England in the white-ball campaign just gone, they know they’ll rarely get a better chance to drive home their advantage.