Prince Jofra Archer: Heir to old-school tearaways
Jofra Archer is one Test old. If you get technical, he has played exactly four days of a match, since the second Ashes Test at Lord’s was curtailed by rain. Yet, those four days were enough to leave the cricket world gushing in awe, and bracing for more; Archer will be back with his fiery bowling for the third Test at Headingley starting August 22.
Perhaps the Australian batsmen facing him will feel a tingling down their spine. The young Barbados-born bowler is bringing back to cricket the idea of an old nemesis—the tearaway quick who extracts wicked bounce, clocking 90mph and above ball after ball, all coming at the batsmen in a tight cluster. The bowler who doesn’t just get wickets, but fells batsmen.
Michael Holding was the shining light of an age when the mention of West Indies fast bowlers made opposition batsmen quake in their shoes, in far flimsier cricketing gear compared to the present. Unlike the modern way of tapping into numbers to extol Archer’s brutal effect, the man known as ‘whispering death’ only needed to look at the batsmen’s eyes to know.
Holding and Archer have a few things in common. A stealthy, short run-up; a deceptively fluid action; quick arm movement, followed by a strong wrist action that leaves batsmen with little reaction time. Steve Smith, having stamped his domination in this Ashes series and nearing a third century, was caught out as the 91.3 mph delivery jumped alarmingly off the pitch and thudded into the base of his neck. It stopped fans and players breathing for a few seconds till Smith, lying flat on his back, finally stirred.
Marnus Labuschange, the concussion sub for Smith, soon had to sway violently away as another Archer bouncer arrowed towards his face. There wasn’t enough time. The lowest wire of his helmet grille made the difference between resuming to score a match-saving half-century and retiring with a broken jaw.
“As a former fast bowler, it makes me happy to see Jofra Archer showing what real fast bowling in Test cricket is all about,” Holding, who was in the TV commentators’ box when Archer’s thunderbolt to Smith hushed the home of cricket into silence, wrote in The Times, London.
“For a long time, we’ve been watching batsmen striding forward down the pitch at bowlers sending the ball down at 80-odd miles per hour. Well, let them try to do that against Archer. His sort of pace pushes batsmen on to the back foot and make them think twice about striding forward. It changes the nature of the contest, as we saw at Lord’s.
“This man will change the entire outlook of fast bowling in the modern era,” he added.
Unlike the 1970s, and even in the 1980s, protective equipment have made batsmen more aggressive, and more fearless. The front-foot play Holding mentioned, and T20 cricket, which has equipped batsmen with a range of new shotmaking options, is evidence of this new fearlessness.
They may no longer come in batches, but once in a while comes a bowler who still make batsmen fear for their safety.
England will know all about that. In the 2013-14 Ashes series in Australia, Mitchell Johnson left the visiting batsmen cowering with his slingy deliveries. Johnson hauled in 37 wickets, and Australia swept the series 5-0, but it left the batsmen scarred in more ways than one.
Johnson gave a glimpse of that firepower when India toured a year later. With the gloom cast by Philip Hughes’ death (the Australia cricketer died as a result of injuries after being hit by a bouncer in the neck during a domestic match in 2014) yet to be lifted, Johnson’s bouncer thudded into Virat Kohli’s helmet.
The soon-to-be India skipper made light of it, but it was anxious moments for the Australia players.
Express pacers have run through batting line-ups, and they are more potent if conditions are even a little seam-friendly. But speed alone does not do it, it is the combination of pace with accuracy, the ability to make the ball spit off the pitch, that makes the difference; Archer showed he has all of that in his arsenal.
A chart shows Mitchell Starc, who could play in Headingley, and Jasprit Bumrah have bowled consistently faster than Archer in a Test. But Archer’s freshness is in reviving the gladiatorial spirit among England and possibly neutral fans, by consistently trying to intimidate batsmen, and not just look for wickets. Australia’s batsmen came into the series prepared for swing, but James Anderson’s injury and Archer’s arrival has instead made them sweat trying to tackle movement off the pitch as well as bounce.
Considering it is the Ashes, it comes as no surprise that England’s infamous Bodyline tactics have been mentioned, at least in passing.
But imagine what Bradman and Co would have felt facing Harry Larwood, without helmet, arm or thigh guards, or even pads that came anywhere near soaking the impact like modern ones do, and the coal-miner turned bowler charging down and bowling fierce bouncers coming into the body at a claustrophobic line.
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- It was a bit of a surprise when England decided to play only three specialist bowlers in the fourth Test, picking batsman Dan Lawrence in place Jofra Archer who had played in the day-night Test but as it turned out Archer was forced to sit due to an injury.