On the surface, at least, it all came to nothing. The toss, the hard-nosed batting and visceral bowling, the recessions, revivals and reviews; the huge crowds, the smiling bell-ringers, the rain, the rain, and more rain... and Ruth, Red for Ruth, the Strauss family; Neil Harvey, aged 91, Eileen Ash, aged 107... and, of course, Steven Smith and Jofra Archer. All for nothing. Or perhaps not - not Smith and Archer anyway. More of them in a moment.

When the umpires pulled stumps at Lord's yesterday, the day's honours conclusively belonged to England. Ben Stokes had backed up his World Cup final performance on the same ground with a hundred of singular brilliance - first introvert, then extrovert to the point of showing off as he laid into the much-vaunted Australian attack. How the full house loved this sparkling batsmanship, wildly cheering the Stokes partnership with Jonny Bairstow that fairly skipped along to the value of 97 runs in just 84 balls: runs that allowed Joe Root to declare and make life most uncomfortable for the Australian dressing room.

Few aspects of cricket are more difficult than batting to save a game you know you cannot win. The bowlers are hunters, the cricket fields of the world their ecosystem; the fielders are as vultures, circling to feed from the prey. With each wicket comes the triumphalism of celebration and the roar of the partisan crowd. Rome must have been like this when the Coliseum was alive with its bloodthirst and the emperors made their choice - to live or let die.

Into it walked Marnus Labuschagne, the first of his type in the history of the game, a concussion substitute. Within two balls he was almost a concussion victim as another blistering delivery from Archer smashed into his helmet. Jos Buttler rushed to him, Root too, but all was well. He settled in, this strange hybrid of a South African-born man playing cricket in an Ashes match for Australia without having been named in the team. He was there two hours and 15 minutes later, battered and bruised but unbeaten, surely having done enough to convince the selectors that he should be named in the XI next time round. Then, suddenly, he was gone; a victim, for sure this time, of a soft signal out in the middle that allowed the third umpire in his eyrie to decide against any evidence to overturn Root's claim for the catch at midwicket. Bad shot and bad luck too. Other umpires might have judged differently to Joel Wilson.

Labuschagne had been there because Smith wasn't, the aftermath of Saturday's sickening blow registering at last. The worst is too dreadful to contemplate; the best that Smith might play at Headingley on Thursday. That hour on Saturday afternoon changed everything - the hour of living dangerously for Smith against the breathtaking pace from Archer that drew gasps of admiration from a crowd that expected something special and got something more. Slowly, perceptibly, the bars emptied. By the time Archer hit Smith on the arm barely a seat was empty. When he hit him in the neck, twenty-eight and a half thousand people were on the edge of those seats. From a short run, a braced front leg, a fast arm and a perfect wrist position, Archer made the ball spit with the kind of violent effect that only the very great fast bowlers have had at their disposal. In the final of the World Cup, Archer was a star born; here at Lord's again, little more than a month later, he bypassed infancy, childhood and youth to be the man England so crave. Pace is king, so much so that Root couldn't get enough of him. He is 24 years old. By the time he is 25 he could be three feet three.

For all Archer's glimmer, it was Jack Leach - for a while in this match, a lesser-spotted Leach - whose practicality began to threaten most as the shadows lengthened. Landing the ball accurately into the rough footmarks, he asked a question a ball, and when the block is on for survival those balls seem to take an age. In the end, the ten overs lost at the start of the day, a slightly delayed declaration, the catch spilled by Jason Roy, and some resolute Australians combined to cost Root's team the win they so badly need.

But England have regrouped; perhaps even regenerated. Archer has rid the World Cup players of post-party blues. In fact, so startling is Archer's potential that most of those guys can barely wait to get at it again. It was a terrific day's cricket for England's joie de vivre, one that turns the tables of confidence and levels out the momentum.

Goodness knows what the selectors will do with the top of the order. Surely they can see Root's discombobulation at three. He must go back to four, his position of mental karma, and the others can play musical chairs. One guesses they will stick with Roy for another game on the basis of the reasons for his selection in the first place. Maybe Joe Denly and Root will simply swap positions in the batting order, or perhaps Denly will open and Roy slip down. Or will Roy miss out? See, it's damn difficult. So too for Australia. Neither David Warner nor Cameron Bancroft can make a trick; Usman Khawaja is hardly long runs. Fancy that - England and Australia short a top three. It was never thus.

None of which has led to anything but enthralling cricket. It is the nature of the Test match game now - everybody at it like mad dogs. We mutter away about poor technique and slow over rates as if they are the game changers in the audience's appreciation of the sport. They clearly are not. The play is the thing and it's got everybody hooked.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK