Rebuilding Jofra Archer: Inside his 22-month battle back to international cricket

Rebuilding Jofra Archer: Inside his 22-month battle back to international cricket
Rebuilding Jofra Archer: Inside his 22-month battle back to international cricket

It has been a long road from A to B for Jofra Archer. A is Ahmedabad and a T20 international on 20 March 2021 and, last Friday, B became Bloemfontein, where he made his England comeback in a one-day international against South Africa.

During the 679-day gap between international appearances, Archer has played just seven competitive fixtures with five of them coming this month. In that time he has had two stress fractures, one of the elbow then another in his lower back, with both injuries serious enough to each be considered “career-threatening” in their own right, according to England’s Head of Performance Science and Medicine, Rob Ahmun. Archer has undergone four different operations on three different body parts, and endured many lonely hours in the gym and nets, too.

The scale and proximity of Archer’s two injuries represented “a unique challenge” for the player and those managing him. There were additional complicating factors: first, his global appeal and popularity; second, the sheer cross-format brilliance he had shown in his early months as an international cricketer, and in domestic leagues around the world. Those factors created huge interest, impatience and an almost unfair level of expectation – which has sometimes given way to hope – around his return.

What is clear is that England were never going to give up on Archer. Pat Cummins was given a Cricket Australia contract every year between his first Test in 2011 and second in 2017 as he battled injury. You sense England would have waited just as long for Archer, having already changed their own qualification rules to expedite his availability.

England consider him that special and, in his first year as an international cricketer in 2019, he proved it, most memorably in the World Cup and Ashes. The easy run up and the whippy, high action gives him pace and bounce, but with the added dimension that he swings and seams it, too. Ben Stokes’ response to his return to action gave away England’s view. He tweeted: “BUZZING BUZZING BUZZING to see Jofra Archer back on the field”.

Archer was never going to give up on making it back, either. Ahmun says he “left no stone unturned to get back" and the two parties have worked as one to achieve that goal.

One injury leads to another

Rare is the English fast bowler who has not suffered a stress fracture of the back. Gallows humour leads them to joke that it is a “rite of passage”. Jon Lewis, a mentor (and landlord) of Archer’s at Sussex and bowling coach with England, had one in his own career, and does not believe they are a new problem. Now, they are just diagnosed, rather than ignored, and players do not get long periods of not bowling to allow them to heal. Speed guns and TV cameras mean the best bowlers, he says, are unable to cruise through spells at a lower pace, protecting their body.

Elbow injuries are less common, and Lewis admits that is the injury that concerned him more. Mark Wood has also been frustrated by elbow problems, but further back there were ominous signs. Tim Bresnan’s required surgery, while Jade Dernbach believes he was never the same bowler after suffering a “bony growth” in the area that prevented him hyper-extending, and bowling his trademark back-of-the-hand slower balls.

Dernbach also suffered stress fractures of the back. “It is a crazy injury,” he says. “For three or four months you just do nothing, letting the bone heal”. He remembers the lengths he went to to speed that process up, including daily injections of vitamin D into his stomach for two or three months. “After that it’s just slowly building up strength. As injuries go, it’s one of the most tedious and mind-numbingly boring. That process is dreadful, I feel everyone’s pain when I see them go down with it. To suffer that on the back of the elbow injury is horrible, a huge challenge”.

Some involved believe the two injuries are linked. As England captain, Joe Root received criticism for his handling of Archer. In 2019, he bowled more overs than any other international bowler, despite only making his debut in May. In New Zealand, shortly before his first elbow injury, he bowled 82 overs in two Tests.

The elbow injury came from overwork while the back issue is likely to have come from under exposure to bowling following the long elbow lay-off. "Bone is biologically active tissue,” Ahmun explains. “It responds to the load you put into it. It’s always in a state of constant turnover. If it doesn’t get enough load, it doesn’t like it. If it gets too much load, it doesn’t like it.”

It took some time to recognise that Archer had a back issue. When he joined England on tour in Barbados last March (see videos below), he looked as if he was approaching a return, but then mild pain emerged.

Scans took time to reveal the issue, which some believe was down to the strength of the muscles surrounding softened bones.

“It was a shock, really disappointing, frustrating,” remembers Lewis. “It was just a really sad time actually. All you want is a player as good as him who loves it as much as he does to be out there entertaining. Really sad for him as a person, even before you consider what his cricket teams might have wanted.”

Rest and recovery in Barbados

Archer identifies the two T20 World Cups he has missed as the most painful moments on this journey, to the extent that he considered travelling to Australia as an England fan last autumn. The road back has taken him to two cricketing nations, though: Barbados and New Zealand.

Early in recovery, it was recognised that there was little point in keeping him in Hove, wandering between his flat and the ground.

“When we first sat down to build a long-term plan about how we got him back to international cricket, one of the key things was: when does he get back to Barbados?” says Ahmun. "That time at home is a huge energy-giver for him.”

Lewis’s experience with a young Archer at Sussex helped inform this decision-making. “I saw his drive when he first came to England and he suffered injuries,” he says. “He asked what he should do, then went back to Barbados and rolled his own pitches in his yard and sorted his action out. He’s very self-sufficient.

“There was trust required, but we knew the character of the man. I didn’t ever feel like he would park off in Barbados, because I knew how much he wanted to be back.

“If we had tried to keep him under our microscope in the UK, that would have been a big mistake. I think he would have become incredibly demoralised by that.”

This was especially true given Archer spent so much time away from Barbados and in bubbles, in the early part of the pandemic.

When he was in the UK, he received regular visits from support staff – at crucial moments “two or three times a week”, according to Ahmun – to ensure that everything was progressing smoothly. They liked what they saw, strengthening that trust.

In Barbados, according to his close friend Chris Jordan, there is “always a cricketer for Jofra to play with”. He trained at the Franklyn Stephenson Academy or at Kensington Oval, sometimes with Stephenson himself or with another Barbadian former Sussex quick, Vasbert Drakes. Archer went to school with Drakes's son, Dominic, who is now also a professional.

As much as the ability to train, Drakes believes Barbados itself helps. “You have the sea, the water helps heal you, the sunshine,” he says. “And it’s an environment where he has constant support, where he knows for a fact that if he needs a practice session he can call on people who understand what’s required.”

Support comes, too, from Archer’s family. “He is very close with his mum, his family, and he loves his dogs,” says Jordan. “It’s about being near to them and having that support, being around them on a day-to-day basis, even if not doing anything specific. I would say that balance between time in the UK and being around family really helped.”

Archer has six dogs (a number of them new since his injury), who helped create routine. “It’s their house, I just live there. They come and go as they please,” he laughs.

England bowler Jofra Archer relaxes at home with his dogs on January 23, 2022 in Bridgetown, Barbados - Gareth Copley/Getty Images
England bowler Jofra Archer relaxes at home with his dogs on January 23, 2022 in Bridgetown, Barbados - Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Jordan describes Archer as a “keen student of the game”, and he is certainly more into trawling Cricinfo than he lets on. “But even when he’s in full swing, he’s one of the best I know at switching off and taking time away from the game, whether it be his Xbox, he loves Call of Duty, football, Go Karting, watching movies, he’s adventurous, has his dogs,” says Jordan.

That ability to “take his downtime” has been crucial, and Archer has turned passion into business with 4cast, a gaming venture he founded with Ben Stokes, Stuart Broad and others.

To New Zealand for surgery

Archer’s trip to New Zealand was less restful, but no less restorative. The decision to send him across the world, to Christchurch and the surgeon Rowan Schouten, was not taken lightly.

Schouten is the protege of Grahame Inglis, who pioneered an orthopaedic technique that has helped a number of Kiwi bowlers, notably Shane Bond and a young Matt Henry, battle back from stress fractures. The ECB assessed their options, but spoke to Cricket Australia, among other boards, about how their players – James Pattinson being the most notable example – had come back from the New Zealand method, and concluded this was the place to go.

“We clean out the fracture and harvest bone grafts from the pelvis,” Inglis told Stuff in 2017. "Then we use two screws and a bit of titanium cable and perform a tension band-type operation across the arch of L5. It compresses and stabilises the fracture.”

Bond, the poster boy for the surgery, once described how after the operation, it felt like he was carrying 100kg on his back, was in agonising pain, and struggled to use the toilet. Eventually, the pain eased.

It is little wonder bowlers have often seen the procedure as a last resort but Lewis says, in fact, that operation gave Archer renewed belief.

“Once he had the op in New Zealand, he had been convinced that the injury was fixed and there was a way back,” he says. “He was doing all the right things already, but he has worked so hard since then.”

Back to bowling

Five months later, Archer was with the Lions in the UAE and he felt and looked so good that he told Jordan he thought he could have played in November’s T20 World Cup following his training back in England.

England, though, have fallen over themselves to take the slow road back. There is an understanding that he needs to be handled with care and tacit recognition that perhaps England did not do that when they first got their hands on their new toy almost four years ago.

Lewis is no longer involved in England men’s setup, but believes it was a smart decision to allow him to make his return in the shortest format. MI Cape Town were convenient partners, too. Now working there is Ben Langley, who only left England’s backroom staff a couple of months ago and knows exactly what Archer needs. His involvement with Mumbai Indians, Archer’s IPL franchise, helps put some English minds at rest about playing that tournament.

While he initially was only going to play two SA20 matches, he ended up playing five, because England cancelled their warm-up match. All five matches were in Cape Town or Paarl, meaning he did not need to be cooped up on flights across South Africa.

Jordan, in the UAE, happened to turn the TV on when Archer was about to bowl his first ball in his first game, was left with “goosebumps” watching him in action again, and was impressed with how quickly he was back in rhythm. Lewis, the other man who perhaps knows his bowling best, also felt everything looked in sound working order but, like Ahmun, is well aware that he cannot bowl spells like he did to Steve Smith in 2019 every single day, and if he is not managed extremely carefully.

Archer is well aware of the expectation around his return, and his performances in the SA20 did little to quell the excitement. But that was the first step and this, in Bloemfontein on Friday, is the second. England have been cautious because they want him back bowling in the biggest events: flagship Test series like the Ashes and World Cups.