Last Saturday, the game of cricket, Test cricket (not its distant relative – one day cricket or its cheap impersonator – T20 cricket), quite appropriately returned to its rightful position, centre stage.
The focus of attention was the second Test of the current Ashes duel between the oldest rivals in the game, England and Australia, which was being played at Lord’s in London. Having lost the first Test, England, desperate to level the series, included Jofra Archer in their final 11. The Barbadian-born and raised fast bowler, whose Test debut had been highly anticipated this season, more than lived up to the promise and has set the cricket world abuzz, as Australia held on to draw the rain-affected encounter.
In a fiery spell on Saturday afternoon, Archer shifted the scales in the match and the series in the way only the truly gifted players can. In the relatively short period of eight overs, Archer announced himself to the Test world, sending shivers through the dressing rooms of the cricket world. His modest return of five wickets for 91 runs from 44 overs do not belie his impact on the contest.
The crux of his performance was his battle with Steve Smith, quite arguably, the world’s best current batsman. The former Australian captain, on his return to Test cricket following the ball tampering affair in South Africa, was in the hunt for a third consecutive century following twin hundreds at Edgbaston. Bowling with the old ball off a short run, Archer rattled the unflappable Smith with a succession of lethal deliveries, as the riveted crowd of 28,500 quickly grasped the fact that they were witnessing something special.
At one time during his spell, Archer unleashed 16 consecutive deliveries at over 90 miles per hour. First, he struck Smith on the arm (a scan later revealed that it was not fractured) before striking him with a nasty blow on his neck, under the helmet, with a thunderous bouncer. Smith dropped like a stone and lay still for quite some time as those in attendance worried if Archer had delivered a fatal blow. The determined Smith, who was forced to retire, later resumed his innings despite protestations from the Australian coach Justin Langer, only to fall eight runs short of the century mark.
Smith suffered a delayed concussion and had to withdraw from the game, and for the first time in Test cricket, a replacement batsman was allowed. Marnus Labuschagne, Smith’s replacement in the second innings and the answer to the inevitable trivia question, also received a blow from Archer, though not as harmful.
Genuinely quick bowlers, who can deliver the goods on a slow pitch like Archer did on the weekend, are a rare commodity and are real weapons sides love to have in their armoury. It is not like Archer was an unknown quantity coming into the match. Former England cricketer Kevin Pietersen had boldly predicted earlier this year that Archer, “a special, special talent” would force his way into the England side, help them capture the World Cup and win the Ashes series. In the latter instance, it was Archer who delivered the crucial Super Over in England’s win.
As the sizzle of Archer’s debut performance soaked in, the media has searched for similar impactful debuts in Test cricket. Looking outside cricketing circles, perhaps one can draw parallels with the arrival of the late Formula One driver, the Brazilian Ayrton Senna, who announced himself to the world in 1984 in an underperforming Toleman car. In blinding rain at Monaco, a circuit noted for a lack of passing places, Senna had manoeuvred from 13th to second place, by the time the race was halted on the 32nd lap, with past world champions Nikki Lauda and Keke Rosberg, in more powerful cars, among his victims.
The television commentators on the weekend drew the audience’s attention to how deceptive Archer is during his approach to the wicket and how it is almost impossible to detect a forthcoming bouncer. Shades of former West Indian fast bowling legend Andy Roberts no doubt spring to mind, like whom, Archer seems to have the uncanny ability to hit batsmen at will. So far, 19 batsmen have been struck by Archer during international matches.
So how is Archer playing for England and not the West Indies is the question being asked? Several factors are at play here. The 24-year-old Archer, who is eligible to play for England since his father is English, did play three Under-19 matches for the West Indies but was omitted from the 2014 World Cup team. Having not lived in England before he was 18, Archer would have been required to be resident in England for seven years, but the England and Wales Cricket Board changed the rule to three years last November, in keeping with the ICC regulations.
So while West Indians are seething at the loss of a potential rebuilding cornerstone, who, having had the option to choose where to play and opted out of a continuously losing environment, Ray Illingworth, the former England Captain and Chairman of Selectors surely must be chomping at the bit. Illingworth had been notably upset when the Barbadian-born Gordon Greenidge had chosen to play for the West Indies instead of England, where he had gone to live as a teenager.
The third Ashes Test begins today at Headingley and England is heavily favoured to level the series. Tune in to see Jofra Archer, a genuine fast bowler.
— Courtesy Stabroek News