England are set to unleash Mark Wood in the third Test against South Africa, with Jofra Archer unable to prove his match fitness.
Wood has worked his way back from a badly torn side and is in line to play competitively for the first time since the World Cup final six months ago, with his last red ball appearance coming 11 months ago in St Lucia.
Archer has not been operating at full capacity since missing the previous match in Cape Town with soreness in his right elbow and his final chance to push for selection in Port Elizabeth came and went in little more than a handful of deliveries in the nets.
Like Wood, Archer comfortably clears 90mph on a good day and had he been bowling at the top end of his range for a sustained period, England would have been left with a tough decision.
As it was, he managed only two short bursts in practice, comprising no more than a couple of overs in total and was bowling within himself throughout.
Archer has proved a rejuvenating force in the England attack since his debut last summer but hopes of seeing him in action this week appeared to end during a lengthy conversation involving team doctor Anita Biswas and physio Craig de Weymarn.
Head coach Chris Silverwood, who had earlier joined the likely bowling group of Wood, Stuart Broad, Sam Curran and Dom Bess in the middle at St George’s Park, joined the huddle and patted Archer’s shoulder before leaving.
England captain Joe Root had earlier framed the afternoon workout as a big one to determine the final make-up of the XI but most of the hard decisions appeared to have been made.
Wood has had a litany of injury problems over several years but has impressed the management with his hard work since the start of the tour and the memory of his last Test appearance – a man-of-the-match showing against the West Indies that saw him bowl with fearsome pace and hostility – also counts in his favour.
“The reason we’ve been quite cautious in terms of rushing him back is that history of injury,” said Root.
“But every now and then, you can’t worry too often about whether he’s going to get through a five-day game. If they’ve proven themselves to be fit, if they’ve jumped through every hoop and worked very hard to get back there, you have to give them that opportunity.
“I know his value in the team. If he’s 100 per cent, bowling at 90mph-plus, the skills he has at that pace are going to cause problems and will be a great asset in Test cricket.”
Archer has already proved his credentials at the highest level, taking 30 wickets in his first seven matches including three five-fors.
He also played a starring role in the World Cup victory, sending down the decisive super over at Lord’s and finishing as England’s top wicket-taker in the tournament.
Assessing his recent fitness battle, Root acknowledged the burden might have temporarily got the better of him.
“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,” said Root.
“He’s very much at the start and managing workloads is part of that. If he’s fit and raring to go you want him in your side but you want to make sure he’s 100 per cent ready and he can deliver all his skills. We’ve got to look after him as a player and his career as well as just trying to win the series.”
Root conceded that Archer’s obvious talents might also led to unreasonable expectations that did not tally up with the fact that he had played less than 30 first-class matches when he began his Test career.
“I think the difference in managing Jofra is managing expectation for him,” reflected Root.
“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 and Stuart Broad. People were matching him with Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc.
“These guys have played a lot of Test cricket, very experienced. He’s a very fast learner and showed that in white-ball cricket and we have to give him that opportunity in Test cricket as well.”