It’s the expectations that are the problem. If most young cricketers claimed three five-wicket hauls in their first seven Tests, the reports would be glowing. Equally, if most young cricketers achieved a bowling average of 27.40 in that time and showed the skills and maturity to be trusted with the Super Over in the World Cup final a couple of months into their international career, you could think they were doing pretty well. But for one reason or another, more seems to be expected of Jofra Archer.
Look at Sam Curran. He’s played 14 Tests and not taken any five-fors. And if that feel like an unfair comparison – Curran is an all-rounder, after all – then compare Archer’s record to those of Stuart Broad and James Anderson over a similar period. After seven Tests, Broad had a Test bowling average of 45.33 (with a best of 3 for 54), while Anderson’s was 31.57 (with two five-fors and a best of 5 for 73). Even compared to the best of modern England, Archer is flying.
One of the things that has become clear from watching England training in Port Elizabeth over the last few days – and not everyone with the strongest opinions has been doing so – is that Archer is not fully fit. It’s not a case of him coasting or England demanding anything unreasonable. It has been a case of them asking him to prove his match fitness and him struggling to do so.
He was significantly slower than Mark Wood on Monday – not 5 or 6mph, but 10 or 20 – and spent much of Wednesday talking to the physio and doctor. After one of the 20 or so deliveries he bowled, Paul Collingwood – one of the assistant coaches – said “Well bowled, Colly” to him; a reference to the gentle pace he was generating. It was said, and taken, in good spirits but it wasn’t as inaccurate as you may think. Archer simply did not look match-fit.
In such a scenario, it would not just be unwise but irresponsible to include him in the team for the Port Elizabeth Test. He has a precious skill and he requires careful and sympathetic handling. He is not the first fast bowler to miss a game or two through injury and he will not be the last. Such incidents do not usually precipitate questions about the management of the player or the player’s desire for the task. There’s not much evidence to suggest they should here, either.
The good thing, from an England perspective, is that they have Mark Wood to come into the side in his place. Wood is probably the one man in England who can bowl at least as quickly as Archer and he has worked hard to earn this opportunity. He has reported some soreness after his exertions on Sunday and Monday and hardly bowled on Wednesday but, as long as he suffers no adverse reaction on Thursday morning, he is likely to be selected ahead of Chris Woakes here. With a bit of luck, Archer and Wood may play together in Johannesburg.
But for all the Tests Wood has missed and all the injuries he’s suffered, it’s hard to recall an occasion when his desire has ever been questioned. For some reason – and it may simply be that Archer, like David Gower before him, makes the game look so absurdly easy that we set unreasonably high standards for them – Archer seems to face questions over his commitment and his desire. It’s far from clear the motivation of all the critics is good.
It’s surely relevant, though, that Archer moved to a nation crying out for a fast bowler. Yes, England has had glimpses of fast bowlers in recent times – Devon Malcolm, Andrew Flintoff (who took just four five-fors in his 183-match first-class career), Steve Harmison and Wood for example – but not for many years have they had a man with what appears to be the whole package: the repeatable action; the pace; the skill; the fitness. There were times during the World Cup when he made bowling over 90mph look ludicrously easy.
But it never is. And England’s desire to play with their new toy has seen Archer used pretty unsparingly in the first eight months or so of his international career. He was the only man in the World Cup to bowl 100 overs and required a pain-killing injection ahead of the Super Over in the final. He bowled 42 overs in an innings – more than Broad has ever managed in a Test innings – in Mount Maunganui and then heard Joe Root, his captain, suggest “there are certain spells when he can unleash a little more”.
To be fair to Root, it’s understandable he would want to keep returning to a man of Archer’s skill so often. Previous captains used to rely on James Anderson and Graeme Swann in a similar way. But we have, perhaps, been spoiled by Anderson’s resilience. He really has been something of a freak. It’s better, perhaps, to remember that Swann retired relatively early with an elbow injury.
Comparisons with Anderson probably don’t help, either. “He’ll never play 150 Tests,” a sour-faced England supporter sneered as he watched nets on Wednesday. Well no, he probably won’t. But only one fast bowler in history has. If all others are deemed half-hearted failures, we are setting the bar impossibly high.
Root also seems to be learning how to handle his key fast bowler. Ahead of this game, he spoke sensibly of the need to take the long-term view with fitness management and provided another reminder of Archer’s relative inexperience. Temper those expectations, was the basic takeaway.
“Jofra is very much at the start of his career and I think managing workloads is important,” Root said. “He’s played a huge amount of cricket since he’s come into the international arena and we’ve seen a little bit of pushback from his body with that elbow injury.
“He’s come into international cricket off the back of some brilliant domestic Twenty20 cricket, in particular. His reputation was made in IPL cricket, Big Bash cricket and performing and excelling in that. He came into Test cricket already with a reputation on a standard of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad. People were matching him with Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc. These guys have played a lot of Test cricket, very experienced.
“For him it’s about managing where he is in his career and for us as a management group understanding that he’s very young and every game he’ll pick things up. He’s a very fast learner – he showed that in white-ball cricket – and we have to give him that opportunity in Test cricket as well.”
But even then, Root suggested Archer needed to be bowling not just well, but quickly, too.
“Of course, if he’s fit and raring to go you want him in your side,” Root said. “But you want to make sure he’s 100 percent ready and he can deliver all his skills: not just seam and swing it around but bowl at 90mph too. We’ve got to look after him as a player as well as just trying to win the series.”
The very best – the likes of Malcolm Marshall and Richard Hadlee – did not bowl flat out all the time. Far from it. They used their pace as one of the skills in their armoury and unleashed it when required.
Perhaps Archer is still learning when it is required. Perhaps there is something to be said for him warming up better and bowling quicker at the start of spells rather than easing into them. But his Test-best performance to date – 6 for 45 at Leeds – came when he concentrated on control and movement and rarely operated at anything approaching the pace seen for a while in the previous Test at Lord’s. And his quickest spells – notably against Steve Smith at Lord’s and Matt Wade at The Oval – didn’t necessarily produce many wickets. The point being, Archer is about far more than pace. He’s much better than that.
Perhaps he is having something of a tricky second album phase to his career. Perhaps he is struggling with the Kookaburra ball and a series of surfaces – in New Zealand, in particular – that might have been designed to thwart him. Perhaps, as Root says, his body is simply pushing back after being asked to do a bit much.
But he’s doing very well, really. Extraordinarily well, by comparison to England’s other seam-bowling newbies in recent times. Craig Overton (averaging 44.77), for example, Jake Ball (114.33) or Tom Curran (100.00).
Archer is missing this Test due to an elbow injury. It happens. He’ll be back. And in him England have something quite special. He deserves appreciating and looking after.