English cricket has been agog with news about the new sensation that has set Thames on fire during this cricket season. Not a day passes by without one story or the other appearing in the media about the super fast bowler who puts the fear of God, and of the cricket ball too, in the minds of opposing batsmen. He helped England win the World Cup by holding his nerve in the Super Over in circumstances that would have put fear in the minds of even the most seasoned of campaigners. And during the ongoing Ashes series, he has been the lead performer for the home side, helping them to attain some semblance of respect before a far superior visiting side.
On a roll
To say that Jofra Archer is the toast of English cricket at present would be a massive understatement. He has had a wonderful run since the season started in May and there has hardly been any match where he has not influenced the outcome. He is young, a strapping bundle of energy, bowls fast and can knock down even the best of batsmen. A wave of excitement surges through the ground every time he takes the ball in his hands and walks to the top of his bowling mark. This should give one some idea as to why critics are going gaga over him and his exploits.
Archer was born in Barbados to his British father and Bajan mother, which made him eligible for getting a British passport. After spending his initial years in the country of his birth, he moved to England in 2016 and straightaway made the critics sit up and take notice of the prodigious talent that he is blessed with. He played for Sussex in English county championship and proved in no uncertain terms that the assessment of a peer cricketer that “the sky is the limit” was no exaggeration in his case. The impact created by his exploits was so great that the English and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) changed its norms regarding qualification for playing for England from seven years to three, which made Archer eligible for turning out for the country of his father in the World Cup.
This proved to be a masterstroke as Archer spearheaded England’s bowling attack in the World Cup, picking up 20 wickets. He featured in all 11 eleven matches and bagged three wickets in five of these games. He improved by leaps and bounds as the tournament progressed and in the final, England skipper Eoin Morgan had no hesitation in handing over the ball to him when the game moved into the Super Over. It would have been nerve-racking for even experienced bowlers to keep their cool in such a situation but Archer delivered at the crunch when the Kiwis needed two to win off the final ball, thus helping to script a memorable win on boundary countback for his side even as the Super Over ended in a tie.
The Ashes Test series that followed has seen Archer growing in stature with each passing match. He was not included in the playing eleven for the first Test that England lost by 251 runs. Making his debut in the second Test, which was held at Lord’s, Archer gave notice of the tremendous pace that he could generate even with the old ball by felling Steven Smith with a vicious bouncer. This gains further significance when one considers the fact that Smith is considered as one of the top batsmen in the world presently, given his current form that saw him score a century in each innings in the first Test. Displaying sublime touch that made bowlers tear their hair in frustration, Smith had reached 80, when Archer, bowling with the old ball, stunned him with a bouncer delivered at a pace of 92.6 miles per hour. Despite seeing the ball very well, both on account of his long tenure at the crease and the excellent nick he was in, Smith could not react fast enough and was struck on the back of his helmet, making him fall forward. He left the crease after consultation with the Aussie team doctor and resumed his innings later and managed to add 12 runs to his score. But it was subsequently found that he was suffering from concussion brought about by the impact caused by ball striking him at a high speed and could take no further part in the match.
Archer sowed seeds of fear and trepidation among the Australian batsmen when they came out to bat in the second innings of the Lord's Test. He dismissed David Warner and Usman Khawaja in quick succession and greeted Marnus Labuschagne with a mean bouncer. Labuschagne was batting in place of the injured Smith and had created cricketing history by being the first substitute to play in place of a batsman who had suffered concussion during the game on account of being struck by a ball. This delivery struck Labuschagne flush on the helmet and felled him. As the medical team rushed to the ground, there was apprehension whether the concussion substitute himself would require a substitute! Fortunately the impact of the blow was taken by the helmet and Labuschagne showed great courage and presence of mind to continue the innings, which guided Australia to safer waters.
In the third Test of the Ashes series, Archer bowled a brilliant spell when the Aussies batted first and bagged 6/45 to bundle out the visitors for 179. Archer used the conditions at Headingly to his advantage and concentrated on hitting the right lengths so that the seam and swing movement could do the rest. This showed that he is not a mere tearaway fast bowler, but is one who is willing to put his brain into good use to pick up wickets.
These performances during the last three months have catapulted Archer to celebrity status in England. It is not often that a genuine quick bowler, capable of hurling the red cherry consistently at speeds about 90 miles per hour, emerges on the horizon and proceeds to make a definite impact on the longer and shorter versions of the game at the international level, within such a brief span of time. While these are the obvious reasons behind the hype surrounding Archer at the moment, there is another factor, which has been lost sight of by most of the critics.
England had held a certain amount of superiority over other sides in international cricket till the early 1970s. It is true that there had been the odd occasions when their supremacy was challenged, but by and large, they had conducted themselves as among the top two or three teams in world cricket, if not the pre-eminent one. During all those years, England could always boast of the presence of a genuine fast bowler in their eleven, who would gain fame not merely as the quickest but also the meanest among his lot. This great line of fast bowlers started with Syd Barnes and extended through Harold Larwood, Frank Tyson, Fred Truman to John Snow. All of them were rated as the fastest in the world at their peak and, in addition, possessed colourful personalities that lent them a larger than life image. This line ended with Snow and during the years since, though England produced pacers such as Bob Willis, James Anderson, Stuart Broad etc, none of them could match the pace and personality of their contemporaries from the West Indies, Australia and Pakistan, with who they were compared with. Archer has, during the short period that he has been in public eye, showed that he has within him what it takes to be a worthwhile successor to the likes of Larwood and Truman. It is this realisation that makes followers and observers of the game in England to look at Archer as a messiah who has arrived to take English cricket back to its glorious days.
It is too early to predict whether Archer would live up to the expectations that have been aroused by his explosive entry into international cricket. England need to realise that they have in their possession a rare diamond which they should handle with great care and caution. The tendency to pile more work on his young shoulders should be curbed so that he can be allowed to gradually evolve into the spearhead of the attack. On his part, Archer should also understand that the metamorphosis of a tearaway fast bowler into an all time great is a long and difficult process that only the mentally strong and physically tough can aspire for and achieve. Archer is certainly the most exciting fast bowling talent to light up the cricket horizon in recent years and it is the hope of followers of the game that he realises his full potential and blossoms into a shining star.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)