ICC World Cup 2019: Jofra Archer faces familiar opponents en route to glory
On Friday, when England take on West Indies at Southampton, a thrilling prospect opens up—24-year-old speedster Jofra Archer will be bowling at his former teammates, bowling for his adopted country and against his original home, for the very first time in his nascent England career.
Shimron Hetmyer and Nicholas Pooran were Archer’s West Indies U-19 teammates. And there are as many as five players from Barbados, where Archer was born and raised, in the West Indies team at the world cup, including the captain Jason Holder. This is a rare and intriguing event in cricket: How did Kepler Wessels feel facing Australia for the first time? Or Graeme Hick when England lined up against Zimbabwe? Was there any awkwardness between them? Was the dressing room warm and receptive?
“It is great that he’s in an England shirt at the moment,” England captain Eoin Morgan, who is Irish himself, said on the eve of the match. “He won’t know how it will feel until he plays the game tomorrow. I think being in that position myself it does feel different the first time you play against a side that either you could have potentially played for or played for.”
From the sunny beaches of Barbados to the rainy shores of England, Archer’s journey to the English team has been as good as a fairy tale for the lean and lanky bowler.
Only last June, Archer was more or less sure he would not make it to the England squad in time for the World Cup.
“Is it too late if he did qualify (to play for England) at the start of next year? Yes, I think it is. Providing everybody is fit, I think it is.” This was Morgan back then, speaking on the probability Archer turning out for England. Five months later, the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) changed their eligibility rules to fast-track Archer’s naturalisation and ultimate inclusion in the team. Fast forward another six months and Archer, 24, was playing for England in the World Cup.
This was a fairy tale in the making ever since Archer made his Sussex debut of 4/49 against a Pakistan XI at Hove three years back. He had England swooning at his silken run-up and searing pace. They knew he had a British passport. He had played for the West Indies youth teams, but it was his performances in franchise leagues—like the Big Bash and the IPL—that prompted ECB to cut corners—England were in need of raw pace, and here was a man who had plenty of that, and knew how to harness it with finesse. But implementing a decision as radical as this wasn’t easy.
Some current England players weren’t sure how Archer’s out-of-turn promotion may affect the team’s bonhomie. West Indies accused the ECB of ‘poaching players’ with big county contracts. “I hope no other West Indian cricketers follow that path and hope it doesn’t lead to counties doing their talent ID in the Caribbean, taking our players into the public school system and then on to offering them lucrative long-term county contracts and then possibly on to playing for England,” Cricket West Indies chief executive Johnny Grave was quoted as saying. Archer remained unmoved. He couldn’t have gone back on his decision, not after he was overlooked by the West Indies for the U-19 World Cup in 2014.
Archer had never played first class cricket for Barbados, which made his route to the England cricket side a little easier. But in his teenage years, when he was still playing in Barbados, the island was abuzz with news of an emerging pacer who made fast bowling look effortless. It meant something to be known in Barbados, the spiritual home of West Indies cricket and one of the richest islands in the Caribbean with a currency (East Caribbean Dollar) that holds at around 2.7 against the US dollar. In comparison, the Jamaican Dollar is priced at 130. Barbados’s dominance in Caribbean cricket is indicative of this disparate economic status. Not only does it house the headquarters of West Indies Cricket, it also has a robust cricket infrastructure that other islands are struggling to match.
At the core of this infrastructure is the school cricket system. Archer’s England-born father, Frank, attended Combermere School, the alma mater of Sir Frank Worrell and Sir Wes Hall. Four current West Indies players—Kraigg and Carlos Brathwaite, Roston Chase and Shane Dowrich—are from this school. The chief coach at Combermere is West Indies assistant coach Roddy Estwick—also former West Indies pacer Sylvester Clarke’s half-brother—who has been associated with West Indies cricket for over 25 years now.
Archer attended Church Foundation Secondary School, also known for its cricket, and turned out for the under 13 team as a spinner. His coach at that time made him switch to bowling fast.
Aaron Jones is one of the leading batsmen in the US cricket team that leaped up to ODI status earlier this year. Jones grew up a few houses down from Archer in St Philip, an area on the easternmost side of Barbados, with idyllic beaches and a lighthouse at the jagged tip of the island.
“We went to primary school and secondary school together,” says Jones, who was born in New York but moved to Barbados as a three-year old. “We learnt all our cricket together in Barbados.”
Jones says Archer’s speedy career could have come to a stuttering halt because of a recurring back problem in his school years.
“He had a really serious back injury. A lot of people were saying he won’t come back and he won’t be able to bowl as fast,” Jones recalls. “There was fear he may not be able to play cricket any longer. He never really allowed that to get to him. Look where he is now!”
Archer’s first breakout year was 2013 when Church Foundation won the Barbados Cricket Association (BCA) championship after Archer scored 86 at No 9 before taking 5/50. They also went on to win the schools’ under-19. Declared the Most Improved Youth Cricketer of Barbados in 2013, Archer’s selection to the West Indies under-19 team was almost guaranteed. The idea of playing in England was far-fetched, even though he was going there every summer to play a little cricket.
“It was only after he got into the under-19 team that we started talking about him playing for England, getting citizenship there,” Jones said. “But when we were say, at the under-15 stage, we didn’t have the slightest clue we would end up playing for two different countries.”
A tour of Bangladesh came Archer’s way after his U-19 selection in 2013, but he wasn’t able to replicate his domestic form. Picked to play just three out of seven games, Archer, then 18, aggregated 48 runs and three wickets. It was apparently not enough to warrant a place in the World Cup team. It left Archer devastated. It also helped him make up his mind. Chris Jordan, another Bajan fast bowler who had moved to play cricket for England and had been a key member of their T20 squad till last year, extended a helping hand. With Jordan’s aid, Archer got a Sussex contract and hit the reset button. In his first complete county season Archer averaged 45.57 in 13 matches and took 61 wickets at 25.29 runs each.
Of all the England players, Jordan, who calls Archer his ‘little brother’, was possibly the most vocal in his support for Archer playing in the World Cup. “He’s worked so, so hard. I have been there on pretty much every step of his journey, from when he was injured to when he made his debut for Sussex, to when he played his first franchise game in Bangladesh,” Jordan told Wisden. “Everything he’s achieving at the minute and everything that he’s getting is thoroughly deserved.
“I was very happy to see somebody who came through the whole system with me to make it this far,” Jones said. “We don’t live too far from each other. Whenever he is back in Barbados, or maybe when I’m back, we hang out. To see that person actually progress over the last couple years and actually get into the England team is exciting.”
When Windies captain Holder was asked if some of his players would be keen to take on Archer’s bowling, he was enigmatic. “Interesting question”, he said, before veering the conversation away.