While mulling over England’s tactics for what would go down in history as the Bodyline series, Douglas Jardine watched a newsreel of Donald Bradman, his side’s principal adversary, batting at the Oval in 1930. What particularly caught his eye was an incident in which a short ball from Harold Larwood hit the Australia hero on the chest. Examining it again and again, Jardine thought he saw Bradman flinch as the delivery bore down on him at high speed. His daughter remembered his comment. “I’ve got it – he’s yellow,” Jardine exclaimed and made his preparations accordingly.
Cricket would not be the same again. Although Bradman was not the principal victim of England’s aggressive bowling in the 1932-33 series – most memorably, Bill Woodfull was hit over the heart and Bert Oldfield suffered a fractured skull from Larwood’s deliveries – the touring team won the Ashes and intimidatory bowling was established as a useful and often controversial weapon in a Test captain’s armoury.
After Saturday, no one will ever accuse Steve Smith of being yellow. As Bradman’s successor made his way from the Lord’s pavilion back to the crease, having attempted to shake off the effect of a blow to his neck from Jofra Archer’s 91mph bouncer, many of those previously reluctant to applaud a player whose reputation was tainted by the sandpaper scandal could not refrain from admiring a gesture of such courage and obduracy.
His duel with Archer, on which the fate of the series seemed to rest, was one to rank in English memories with Geoff Boycott versus Michael Holding in Bridgetown in 1981 or Mike Atherton fending off Allan Donald at Trent Bridge in 1998. Whether such a passage of play lasts six balls, as it did in Barbados, or just short of six hours, as in Nottingham, the atmosphere crackles with a special kind of electricity. Every watcher’s system is flooded with the adrenaline that accompanies a blend of exhilaration and fear.
Smith didn’t last long after his return, although the image of the defiantly unorthodox swat for four off the second delivery he received from Chris Woakes will last almost as long in the memory as the sight of his figure lying on the ground earlier. The way he got out soon afterwards, leaving a straight ball, was a surer sign of scrambled senses than any reply he had previously given to the questions asked by his team doctor and specified in the latest iteration of the sport concussion assessment tool, starting with: “What venue is this?”
Once further symptoms had become apparent the next day, there were plenty of commentators ready to insist that, given the recent emphasis throughout sport on dealing with concussion, he ought to have been prevented from resuming his innings. It was even said independent doctors should be brought in to make such assessments, insinuating team medics may be prone to setting aside their ethical judgment in the interests of a result.
Sometimes, as with the Bodyline series or West Indies’ rotation of four fast bowlers in the 1980s, relentless short-pitched fast bowling threatens the spirit of the game, prompting adjustments to the laws. But the physical threat posed by an individual fast bowler is a legitimate aspect of cricket and Archer versus Smith offered an elevated example of a hallowed genre. It was interesting that although Archer rattled a number of other batsmen’s helmets during the course of the match the presence of Smith at the other end brought him to a peak of focused aggression.
By returning to the crease, Smith certainly put himself at risk of the second blow that medical opinion now sees as providing an enhanced threat to a concussed player. But he also provided us with an example of the sort of courage without which a sport such as cricket is not really worth the candle.
Helmets and other forms of padding offer batsmen far more protection than their predecessors enjoyed against Larwood, Ray Lindwall or Wes Hall. Yet the challenge they face has changed very little: the ball still weighs five and a half ounces, the pitch is still 22 yards long, and fast bowlers still bowl in the same 90mph range as their distant ancestors, despite much more advanced physical conditioning. Watching Smith’s assertive reaction to Archer’s fusillade on Saturday, David Gower observed that 30 years ago the technique of evasion would have been very different; time, in that sense, has tilted the odds in the batsman’s favour.
Some sports will always contain an inherent danger to life and limb, and reducing the threat in line with changing attitudes to risk is inevitable. Given the increasing reluctance of parents to allow their children to play rugby union, the authorities are right to consider amendments to the rules on tackling. But even in this safety-conscious era the only way of providing a guarantee against deaths such as those of the grand prix driver Jules Bianchi, the boxer Maxim Dadashev and the cyclist Bjorg Lambrecht is to ban those sports completely – which some, no doubt, would do.
The next time we see Smith make his way to the crease, he will probably be wearing the neck guards on his helmet and the forearm protector that would have reduced the damage from the two blows he suffered on Saturday. Withholding his return from Thursday’s Test at Headingley would seem, on the evidence so far, to be a wise choice. But next month at Old Trafford or the Oval the second instalment of his contest with Archer will be awaited with even keener anticipation than the first, which gave us a new page of cricket history.