The bowler’s Indian Premier League season is over, a stop-start campaign during which he played only half of Mumbai Indians’ 10 matches and flew to Belgium for minor elbow surgery yesterday halted definitively by a decision to return home to rest.
Three weeks out from the start of the Test summer, plans that Archer — who returned from a 17-month injury absence at the start of the year — would by now be almost ready for the rigours of five-day cricket have, clearly, not come to fruition.
Had this not been an Ashes summer, a different comeback trail may have been mapped out in the first place. The visit of Australia and the lure of round two with Steve Smith, Ben Stokes’s talk of fast, flat pitches and the need for speed, have each added a sense of urgency to a Test return more than two years in the making.
With the series finale at the Kia Oval still 11 weeks away, Archer may yet play some part in the Ashes, having said all along that anything more than a single outing would be “a bonus”. But were Stokes’s side preparing for home series against the West Indies and Sri Lanka — as they will be in 12 months’ time — England’s focus would surely be trained beyond that, upon having their best white-ball bowler available for the autumn’s World Cup defence.
Pragmatism and common sense would suggest that should be the case now, and that the time has come to address that taboo topic of a permanent split from the red-ball game.
But how could anyone, really, tell Archer not to worry about Test cricket when, across column inches, broadcast minutes and on the boundary rope, that is all any of us seem to do?
“I still want to play as much red-ball [cricket] as possible,” Archer told ESPNcricinfo last month, and how pleasing it was to read, when market forces have entire countries, never mind individual players, deprioritising the form.
For the sake of its future, Test cricket needs a greater embrace of collective responsibility among national boards but it also needs the outspoken backing of its biggest stars: just look at Virat Kohli’s enthusiasm and its impact in India or, indeed, what Stokes has led in England over the past year.
True, you might say that were Archer really that desperate to play Test cricket, he would never have gone to the IPL, and would have spent the last few weeks grinding away at Sussex.
It is a nice idea, but one that does not really wash. Mumbai made a monstrous investment in an injured player at last year’s auction and wanted some return; Archer, having missed the last two editions, wanted to play in the world’s best competition, and understandably so.
The lure of the IPL is now simply too strong and before bemoaning that fact of the current landscape, do not forget the role franchise cricket played in producing the ready-made international cricketer England parachuted into their World Cup and Ashes sides four years ago.
Archer’s enforced absence from Test cricket stretching back to February 2021 has almost certainly intensified his desire to keep playing it, but on grounds of health few would be in a position to criticise were he to walk away. The fire, though, still seems to be burning bright and the rest of us ought to be glad it is.