This is an old story, but a good one, and worth telling again. Back in the late 1980s, Boris Becker beat Andre Agassi in the first three matches they played against each other. Agassi’s problem was he just could not figure out how to break Becker’s serve. He ended up getting a little bit obsessed and started watching video tapes of his service games on loop to figure out his secret.
Then one day he finally cracked it. He realised that Becker had a tell. Before he tossed the ball, he would stick his tongue out. When he was serving wide towards the tramline, his tongue would come out the left side of his mouth. After that, Agassi beat him nine times in 11 matches.
Up there, where the very best play, games turn on what happens in the briefest fraction of a second and success depends on how well a player can read these little clues about what their opponent is going to do. Against a fast bowler, a batsman has a little less than half a second to decide what shot to play and follow through on it. The only way to do it is if you can see the clues about what is coming.
They are rarely as obvious as Becker’s. Research at the Australian Institute of Sport suggests most of it goes on subconsciously. But a batsman will look for the way a bowler tilts his wrist or spreads his fingers in his grip and which way around he is holding the ball.
The trouble for John Campbell, and plenty of other batsmen on the international circuit, is that Jofra Archer does not seem to give any of them much of an inkling about what is coming.
Campbell was settling into what was shaping up to be his best innings of the series. He had been in for 50 deliveries and was just beginning to get comfortable, or as close as any man could be batting against this attack on a tricky pitch on a cloudy day.
In those conditions, this quartet – Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes and Archer – would be a match for any team in the world. They must be as good a quartet as England have fielded in England since 2005.
But Campbell was just about coping. He has looked a little out of his depth in Test cricket in this series, but together with Shai Hope he had seen off the opening spells from Anderson and Broad. He had hit a couple of gorgeous fours, too, one off each of them, a cut through cover point that made Anderson spin on his heel in irritation and a cracking cover drive off Broad that echoed around the empty stands.
When Woakes came on, Campbell walloped him away square with a pull for four more through midwicket. Against Archer, Campbell decided to try to get on the front foot whenever he could and was defending way outside his crease.
Then Archer did it, hit him with a 90mph short ball that leapt up at his throat like a rapacious snake. Campbell was caught with nowhere to go and ended up reeling backwards as the ball hit his bat on the splice and ricocheted away to Rory Burns in the gully.
It was a brute of a ball because Campbell clearly had no idea the length was going to be any shorter than the fuller deliveries that had come before it. Archer does not give a batsman any cues, there is nothing obvious in his run-up or action to suggest this next ball is the one that is going to take your head off. You get nothing from his tongue or anything else about him. Which means the batsman has to live with the worry of not knowing.
That one delivery was a good illustration of why England want Archer in their strongest attack. It is his ability to conjure something from nothing, in an idle moment, when the game is drifting away from them.
There have been a lot of times in recent years when they have been desperate for a bowler who can do this. Although, oddly enough, this was not one of them. On a day such as this one, Anderson, Broad and Woakes could clean up West Indies without any help and they carved apart the middle order between them. Batting against them felt as if it was a truly pitiless business, at best an exercise in delaying the inevitable. Better batting sides than this one would have struggled.
In 2005, England had Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones and Matthew Hoggard. There was more variety there, but less experience and expertise than Anderson, Broad and Woakes have, while Archer is as fast, dangerous and smart as any of them.
Right now the competition for places in the team keeps them particularly hungry and mean, each keen to prove they should be playing ahead of the rest. They usually say cricket is a batsman’s game but on Saturday at Old Trafford, it felt as if it was a desperate way to make a living.