In the space of 36 balls, Mark Wood showed what could have been for England.
The 32-year-old turned the heat up on the Australian cricket team and took four quick wickets.
His inspired spell saw Australia bowled out for 155 in the second innings of the fifth Test in Hobart – their lowest score in four years.
Imagine if England’s premier fast bowler Jofra Archer had arrived Down Under?
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The Bellerive deck was doing plenty for the quicks, but Wood relied on something else: intimidation.
Rather than pitching the ball up relying on seam movement, Wood dropped short and bounced Australia out.
It was a page taken out of the Archer playbook – the man who felled Steve Smith at Lord’s on Test debut in 2019.
Wood picked up the wicket of Usman Khawaja late on day two and then continued the short ball barrage early on day three.
After looking comfortable on the front foot, Scott Boland could not contain a rising delivery; first-innings century maker Travis Head looked uncomfortable before being caught in two minds and eventually strangled down the leg side; and Steve Smith took on the heavily packed leg-side field and picked out fine-leg.
His thunderous spell continued as Mitchell Starc was hurried from a short ball and found Ollie Pope in the deep.
Wood, who was arguably the tourists’ best quick of the tour but had not got the wickets he deserved, finished with 6-37.
“The short ball theory for Mark Wood has worked throughout the whole game,” former England captain Michael Vaughan said in commentary for Fox Cricket.
“He’s peppering them all, they couldn’t help themselves; Travis Head with that little flick down the leg-side and the big wicket; the big scalp of Steve Smith guided it straight down fine-leg’s throat.
“Mark Wood’s been fantastic. He really has put in a tremendous amount of effort and he’s just a little bit of an indication of what England really needs to work on over the next few years. I know it’s been unfortunate with Jofra Archer and Olly Stone not being able to come Down Under, but you really need a cartel of six to eight fast bowlers in your squad.”
In that final sentence, Vaughan hit the nail on the head.
Ever since the 2019 Ashes, a series in which Smith scored 774 runs at 110.57, oppositions have targeted him with the short ball and leg-side traps.
Although the runs have not dried up completely, Smith’s free scoring nature has and he has been limited to just one century since.
“I just want to talk about Steve Smith and we know he’s a great player, but I want to look at the dismissal today – the hook shot – and we go back to 2019, New Zealand they employed this bodyline tactic, lots of short-pitched bowling, man on the leg-side, nothing outside off-stump and they were very successful, Steve Smith got out a number of times to the short ball,” Waugh said in commentary during a Fox Cricket Lab segment.
“Back then he was averaging 64 in Test match cricket, since then his average has dropped down to 37, so it really has affected his success rate at the crease and he’s really got to work on this.
“Steve Smith is going to see a lot of bowlers from around the world employing this tactic, what can he come up with in the future to deal with this?”
Vaughan predicted Smith would continue to face bumper barrage.
“That was good from Mark Waugh on Steve Smith,” Vaughan said.
“He’s just got to find a way because it is a tactic that teams are going to turn to. The New Zealanders started it and now England have followed suit. He is going to have plenty more short balls to face.”
Shane Warne agreed: “14 Tests is a decent sample size too, it’s not just a couple of Tests, 14 Tests is a couple of years. When you’re that good like Steve Smith has been, teams are going to come up with some theories and just try it, and if it starts to work other teams are going to follow suit. We saw New Zealand do it a little bit to Steve Smith and now England this series and if your average (drops from) 64 to 36, it shows you can have a plan to him if you’re good enough to execute.”
Smith was not just the only player in the Australian batting unit to struggle against speed.
Despite his flying finish at the T20 World Cup, David Warner’s was troubled by the fast bowlers and instead made hay against the slower bowlers.
That theme continued throughout the Ashes, where Wood regularly troubled Warner right from the outset at the Gabba and finished with a pair in the final Test.
Marnus Labuschagne made three figures in Adelaide, but too struggled against the extra speed and bounce of Ben Stokes who resorted to a “bodyline” tactic.
Wood then picked up Labuschagne regularly throughout the final three Tests of the series, as the world’s No.1 batsman failed to reach 50.
Head looked rushed early on day three, while Cameron Green was troubled on day one against Wood and eventually departed as he fell into the fast bowler’s trap after an over of facing the short stuff.
No-one in world cricket enjoys facing speed.
It is why Australia’s quicks have enjoyed such sustained success over the history of Test cricket.
But it also showed the difference between the two teams in Australian conditions.
The case in point was in Adelaide, where England went into the day-night Test with five quicks each offering similar qualities with Wood rested.
In stark contrast, despite the absence of Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, Australia turned to Jhye Richardson and Michael Neser to accompany the left-arm swing of Mitchell Starc and mid-140s of all-rounder Green.
Better was to come, with Scott Boland’s probing length to arrive at the MCG after Cummins’ electric return.
Meanwhile as Australia’s quicks went to town, England’s two fastest bowlers — Archer and Olly Stone — were on the sidelines after going under the knife in 2021.
For Vaughan, building a cartel was essential by the time England returned Down Under.
“This Australia attack, we saw yesterday, even when the ball got that little bit older, when the lights came on, they’ve just got that extra pace, they’ve got that extra pace and venom, that extra height, Cameron Green, Pat Cummins,” Vaughan said.
“It’s just that difference in pace that Australia have over the English attack.
“If you look at the bowlers throughout the series, it’s only really Mark Wood that’s been that point of difference and it’s not enough in Australian conditions.
“That’s why we’re also saying now, and we have said it in the past that English cricket really needs to look at developing a cartel of fast bowlers to compete overseas. That’s got to be one of their main aims when this England side gets home.”
Warne added: “And that’s why Jofra Archer was such a loss. Archer and Wood so it’s not just one bowler the whole time, to have Archer as well, it’s a huge loss to lose him.”
England did not help themselves by their bizarre selections throughout the series, which included leaving out Stuart Broad for pitches tailormade for him while also leaving out Wood for the Adelaide Test.
But Vaughan said ultimately England could not use the absence of Archer, who took 22 wickets at 20.27 in four Ashes Tests in 2019, as an excuse for their nightmare tour of Australia.
“That was a mistake from England not playing Stuart Broad in that first Test match in the Gabba,” Vaughan said.
“But ultimately you can bowl and play whoever you wish, if you don’t get enough runs and you keep getting bowled out for 147, 68, 188, you keep making mistakes with the bat in the hand, you can have Wasim (Akram) and Waqar (Younis), Courtney (Walsh) and Curtley (Ambrose), (Stuart) Broad and (Jimmy) Anderson, Murali (Muttiah Muralitharan), you can have whoever, if the batters don’t arrive and get some kind of decent numbers, you’re not going to win Test matches.
“So, England made mistakes in selection but, ultimately, it’s been about the batting, the batting here has just not fired from an England perspective and they’ve not scored enough runs and that is, ultimately, where they’ve been putting the team under a huge amount of pressure.”
Vaughan doubled down in his assessment following the English collapse, which saw the tourists lose 10-56 to finish the Ashes.
“Nar, we’re kidding as ourselves,” Vaughan told foxsports.com.au.
“While ever a team has got the mentality and the character like this team, they can make as many excuses as they want about selection and the players who aren’t here, it’s been a problem for a while with the players you’ve mentioned, this team has had a real character problem for a few years now of knowing how to fight.
“This team, when they lose, they get absolutely hammered.
“England teams of the past have lost many games, but it was never in the fashion that we’ve seen this team do on a consistent basis.”
Vaughan makes a point.
Batsmen set up games.
Bowlers, however, win you them.
Going forward, England management will surely target Australia with short-pitch bowling.
With a fit and firing Archer to bowl in tandem with Wood, England won’t just have all their eggs in one basket.