Ashes 2019: Jofra Archer’s talent is unquestionable, but do England know how to get the best out of him?

Jonathan Liew
The Independent

The roar begins in the Compton Stand and rolls around the ground like sloshing wave: to the Edrich, to the Grand Stand, to the Mound and the Tavern. It’s a roar of anticipation and longing, of a wish fulfilled, of a long day’s cricket that only now feels like it’s tapering to a point. Meanwhile, as the shadows lengthen on the outfield, a solitary figure has strolled over from long leg, towards the middle of the field, ready to begin the first over of his spell.

Jofra Archer is the darling of Lord’s, and all he’s had to do so far is take off his cap.

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Archer’s first ball is an ordinary loosener outside off-stump. Although, as seasoned Archer watchers will tell you, when it comes to the 23-year-old Sussex fast bowler, the term ‘ordinary’ is a strictly relative one. For one thing, the speed gun has already been tickled to the tune of 87mph. The ball thuds into Jonny Bairstow’s gloves. A rustle of excitement flutters through the packed stands.

The second ball is not a loosener. This, too, appears to be passing harmlessly outside off, but as it kisses the turf it takes a sharp deviation, through the defences of a startled Cameron Bancroft, past an even more startled Bairstow, and up towards the pavilion for four byes. We all know about the famous Lord’s slope, which runs 2.5 metres from north to south, across the wicket. Archer has just managed to jag the ball about two feet up it.

The third ball is a bouncer that Bancroft decides to duck, although again the word ‘decides’ is being loaded with a good deal of weight. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that the duck is foisted upon Bancroft, that he flexes his knees and cows his head partly out of pure survival reflex and partly out of a paucity of alternative options. The fourth ball passes harmlessly outside off stump. At 91mph.

The fifth ball flies off the inside edge for a single. The sixth is blocked through cover by David Warner for a single. Archer takes his cap and returns to fine leg, to a roar of acclaim from the 30,000 here to watch. Archer has bowled just six balls in Test cricket, and already he has this place in the palm of his hand.

Jofra Archer celebrates taking the wicket of Cameron Bancroft (PA)
Jofra Archer celebrates taking the wicket of Cameron Bancroft (PA)

In his second over, Archer gets a wicket. David Warner edges the ball through to Bairstow, but the nick is lost in the noise, and nobody appeals. Nevertheless, he’s rattled. At Edgbaston, Warner was shuffling across his stumps trying to get in line with the ball, but here, to quote that phrase you see at the end of movie credits, any similarity between Warner’s position and the line of the ball is purely coincidental. A veteran of 75 Tests and more than 6,000 runs, Warner’s footwork is in pieces, and it shows the very next over when he gets in a terrible position to play the ball and loses his bails to the innocuous medium pace of Stuart Broad.

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That was on Thursday evening. Friday morning dawns greyer and grimmer, the crackle of the third session replaced by the murmur of the first. Archer doesn’t start badly, but you’d be hard pushed to say he starts well. As Australia extend their overnight score of 30 past 40 and then 50, Archer isn’t bowling a full enough length to make the batsmen play. He’s overusing the bouncer, and so Bancroft and Usman Khawaja can simply set themselves up in the crease and watch most of his deliveries sail by.

Partly, you suspect, Archer is bowling to a plan not entirely of his own making. The clue is in the setup: a leg slip, two short legs, a short mid-on for the skewed fend. It’s a misty morning at Lord’s, the clouds are so low you could almost reel them in with a stick, and for some reason Joe Root has Archer bowling to the sort of field you might associate with a Perth road.

Jofra Archer celebrates (Getty)
Jofra Archer celebrates (Getty)

This, perhaps, is a consequence of the English infatuation with pure pace, whether facing it or deploying it. England has produced so few pure fast bowlers that when they do come along, the temptation is to switch them instantly into bomber mode. Giddy captains, eager to avenge their own overseas pace traumas, fancy themselves Douglas Jardine and arm them with a battery of short legs and leg gullies in the hope of avenging the wrongs of history. Such, you fear, was the fate assigned to Archer in his first spell this morning.

You can glimpse it, too, in the description of Archer as an X-factor bowler, a trump card, an ace up the sleeve, rather than simply a very fine bowler who puts the ball where everyone else usually puts it, just slightly faster. The likes of Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood - in the same league, pace-wise as Archer - don’t see themselves as winged destroyers. They simply find a searching line and length, extract whatever movement is available and trust that a good-length delivery at 91mph is far more likely to induce a mistake than one at 83mph.

Jofra Archer is congratulated by his teammates (AFP/Getty)
Jofra Archer is congratulated by his teammates (AFP/Getty)

Archer knows this, of course. It’s how he got the vast majority of his wickets for Sussex: not through affected aggression or bumper barrages, but by finding a good length and letting his natural pace and beautifully straight seam position do the rest. And in the sixth over of his spell, he proved it: putting the ball on off-stump, nipping the ball back at 90mph and rapping Bancroft on the pad for an LBW decision and his first Test wicket.

It’s often said that Archer is a captain’s dream. The natural pace generated by a long, straight arm. The tireless athleticism that allowed him to bowl eight overs unchanged on Friday morning, and without any loss of pace: his final over, in fact, was quicker than his first. A searing bouncer and a pinpoint yorker and a command of line and length and the intelligence and perseverance to home in on a batsman’s weakness. You can use him with the new ball, with the old ball, on green wickets and dead wickets, to dry up an innings or to slice one open.

Crowds will roar him on, ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ the short stuff, but in many ways, getting Archer to deliver a steady diet of bouncers is probably the least interesting thing he can do. There are signs that Root was eventually beginning to learn this lesson, gradually pulling out his leg-side catchers and allowing Archer a more conventional line of attack as his spell went on. And as England try to force a victory on Saturday, as the series progresses, you feel their use or misuse of Archer will be pivotal. After all, there’s no debate about Archer’s gifts. The real question is whether England have the nous to take proper advantage of them.

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