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Monday, Oct 14, 2019

Ashes 2019, England vs Australia: Fiery Jofra Archer spices up Tests

Batsmen don’t see them coming. At the World Cup, Hashim Amla didn’t; neither did Alex Carey. The ball thudded into both.

cricket Updated: Aug 19, 2019 23:50 IST
Somshuvra Laha
Somshuvra Laha
New Delhi
CEngland's Jofra Archer celebrates the wicket of Australia's Tim Paine.
CEngland's Jofra Archer celebrates the wicket of Australia's Tim Paine.(Reuters)

The most hypnotic view of Jofra Archer’s bowling is probably from the press box. A brief jog builds into a rhythmic, silken run up without the slightest hint of exertion, culminating in a bowling stride devoid of any leap or appreciable follow through. The real work is done by those sculpted shoulders that propel 90mph bouncers even on a fifth day pitch. Batsmen don’t see them coming. At the World Cup, Hashim Amla didn’t; neither did Alex Carey. The ball thudded into both.

In the Lord’s Test, Archer’s short-pitched deliveries arrowed into Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne—the bouncer casualty list is growing. It’s only his Test debut. Three more Ashes matches are to come. Fans worldwide are smacking their lips in anticipation. The hostility of the Barbados-born bowler has left the Aussie batsmen feeling far from safe even with helmets on. If seeing fear in the eyes of batsmen belonged to a bygone era, Archer is nightmare revisited.

Also read:  ‘The crowd could learn a thing or two from Steve Smith’ - Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison

And when you also consider he was the chosen one to bowl the Super Over in the World Cup final, which set pulses racing across the cricket world, Archer comes across as the most precious fast bowling talent in a long time.

Speed is Archer’s natural ally. His wiry build and a smooth run-up help preserve all energy for the final flourish. To startle South African and Australian batsmen— better players of fast bowling than sub-continent batsmen—with searing pace is not easy. “One thing is it doesn’t seem like he bowls 140 plus, but he does,” Pakistan bowling coach Azhar Mahmood had said before their World Cup match against England in Nottingham. He didn’t use the expression deceptive pace. Archer is more than that.

Shoaib Akhtar may have castigated Archer for not running up to check on Smith after knocking him down with a brute of a bouncer. But don’t blame him for not overtly expressing concern. As the great Andy ‘Hitman’ Roberts says in ‘Fire in Babylon’: ‘I always feel when I hit a batsman. The sympathy’s in here (pointing to his heart). You may not see it, and I can’t show that. It’s just that I have a job to do.” In an age where the balance between bat and ball is getting skewed all the time, Archer seems to be sticking to an understandable logic to maintain the fear factor in batsmen.

Also read: Jofra Archer had warned the world before Steve Smith incident in an old tweet

Labuschagne knows best. An Ashes debut in the most unfortunate circumstances—as the first concussion substitute in history—at the home of cricket can be overwhelming. And Archer reminded Labuschagne what he was up against straightaway, when he hit his visor with a bouncer second ball. Good, old-fashion welcome by a fiery fast bowler. That Labuschagne responded with a defiant half-century that Australia rode to escape defeat showed how quality begets quality. Such searing fast bowling can bring the best response in batsmen, making for a high-voltage series. Test cricket’s relevance hinges on such theatre.

Comparisons are bound to crop up. That effortless run-up evokes the ‘Whispering Death’ glide to the crease of Michael Holding. Though he was much shorter than Archer, for sheer hostility it has to be fellow Bajan Malcolm Marshall.

But Archer’s challenge is the generation he belongs to. Even before he made his England debut, he was playing his trade in the Indian Premier League, Big Bash and Pakistan Super League, apart from playing in all formats for Sussex. To be effective year-round requires exceptional workload management and clarity of mind. At Lord’s, Archer bowled the most overs in the Australia first innings—29 out of 94.3. In the second innings, his 15 overs were fewer than spinner Jack Leach (15 to 16.3) only because poor light forced him off the attack at the fag end.

Archer though had already declared he was ready. The dust hadn’t settled on the World Cup final when he declared red-ball cricket is where he really belongs. Maybe Joe Root could have unleashed him in the Edgbaston Test itself.

Australia managed to preserve their 1-0 lead going into the Leeds Test, but is no doubt they are shaken. David Warner’s confidence has taken a beating after a spate of poor scores. Smith is racing against time to shake off the effects of the concussion with the Headingley Test starting on Thursday. Labuschagne’s ear might still be ringing from the blow he took.

Archer looms as the biggest threat. To crank up the pace even as the ball gets older—he started around 80 mph but was hitting 92mph in his second spell— validates his stamina and consistency as well. There had been suggestions in the Aussie camp that he was a white-ball bowler. Unlikely any more.

“I am not sure there will be a better debut in terms of announcing yourself in the team,” gushed Ben Stokes, who scored a match-saving century in the second innings at Lord’s and was instrumental in soothing Archer’s nerves during the Super Over.

“The spell was incredible to watch. We are very lucky he is in our team. He gives you an extra dimension,” the England vice-captain declared.

That spell was also a message from Archer—showing Australia his was not all empty boast. Archer’s step-father Patrick Waithe took to Twitter a few hours after the Lord’s Test. “People keep saying he should be playing for the West Indies. Were you all going to select him? I know West Indies selectors were not,” tweeted Waithe, who had spent hours moulding Archer at a ground near a graveyard in Barbados, before he finally made it across the ‘pond’. Archer had a lot to prove, to himself and to the world.

What does a captain do when he knows someone like Archer is itching to explode? He sets an attacking field, hands the ball and asks him to bowl without inhibitions. “He’s come in and he really has made a massive impact, added a different dynamic to our bowling group and has given Australia something different to think about,” said Joe Root after the second Test. “It’s really pleasing to see someone come in on Test debut and really shake up things and live up to the hype—even some of the hype that he put on himself.”

Now that James Anderson has been left out of the third Test as well, Archer’s responsibility goes up manifold. He didn’t swing the ball at Lord’s but is capable of making the ball snake into right-handers, which his County opponents can vouch for. Root though will again depend on his X factor— intimidating pace. “He makes things happen when not many others in world cricket can. Such a unique action and way of bowling, and obviously natural pace, which is always going to be in the game on any surface,” said Root.

Former cricketers too have been effusive in praise. “With Archer, I am excited for the next few years of Test match cricket. We have got a superstar,” former England captain Michael Vaughan told BBC. Sourav Ganguly tweeted: “The ‘Ashes’ series have kept test cricket alive .... up to rest of the world to raise their standards.” It’s quite apparent Archer is marked for greatness, and given the duty to make Test cricket enthralling again.

He did his bit at Lord’s. The home of cricket has witnessed better hauls from debutants though.

Archer triggers recollections of Bob Massie, the Perth-born Australia pacer with giant sideburns who snapped up 16 English wickets in 1972. He went on to play another five Tests. Born in Barbados, and polished in Sussex, Archer is that artillery England will need to breach many defences in the future. Provided England don’t run him to the ground.

First Published: Aug 19, 2019 23:48 IST

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