@Ben_Wisden 2 minute read
Ben Gardner appraises Jofra Archer’s first game of cricket in 604 days, for MI Cape Town in the SA20.
The SA20 gets underway, and with it comes the interest that accompanies any shiny new venture. There’s the cricket side of things, the intrigue of seeing Rashid Khan v Jos Buttler in a different shade on a different surface. There are the innovations, the tweaks and the tinkering that may or may not make any difference. There are the macro questions, about whether or not This Is Good, whether it will save the sport in South Africa or kill it off globally.
But today, these are sideshows. Jofra Archer is back. And, as if to ramp up the tension further, Rashid isn’t even giving him the new ball.
It’s 604 days since Archer last set foot on the field for a top-level cricket match, but even that doesn’t tell the true tale of his battles with injury. 2019 was the year to end all years, and for a time it looked as if it had ended Archer, who bowled whenever and wherever England needed him, and still got told he wasn’t trying hard enough.
A pedal-to-the-metal fitness test in South Africa, which he failed, is grim to think about considering what followed, with scans later revealing a stress fracture in the elbow. That was the start, and at times it seemed as if an end was never in sight.
Injuries beget injuries, and fast bowlers are never more susceptible than in that first game or two back, when the body is unhardened, the mends untested. Archer got through the home summer, though without some of his usual venom. He was unplayable in the IPL, but in March 2021, the elbow injury recurred, ruling him out of the rest of the India tour. The steps back were tentative – a bit of county action, but the New Zealand Tests are a no-go – and soon it’s clear why. Another elbow stress fracture, another surgery. In May 2022, nearly a year since his last game, came the hammer blow: a stress fracture in the back. No timeline was set for his return. Pundits, ashen-faced, worried that his Test career might be over just as it was getting started. Archer feared he will never play again.
Slowly, the clouds began to lift. Archer topped 90mph playing for England Lions, and Zak Crawley says you can add another two or three to the speedgun. MI Cape Town upload a super-slomo, impossibly seductive training video of Archer running in, cap on backwards, chain bouncing, shoulders broader than before but the action as smooth as ever.
— MI Cape Town (@MICapeTown) January 8, 2023
Still, with anticipation comes trepidation. Some bowlers do come back from the brink and reach the top again, but many don’t. As the time passes, those memories of Archer crunching helmets and clipping bails begin to blur around the edges, fading while also taking on implausible proportions. You remember the wickets, but not the half-volleys. Can he really be as good as the sepia-tinted version in our minds?
Two overs pass, Rashid Khan inexplicably throwing the ball to George Linde and Sam Curran, and those giddy nerves grow. It takes one ball for Archer to assure everyone that he really was that good, and he really can be again.
Wihan Lubbe is the batter in his sights. The 30-year-old is a creditable journeyman on the South African circuit, good enough to earn two T20I caps in April 2021. But Archer makes him look clueless, the first ball on that unhittable length, moving away off the seam, angled across and beating the bat by a distance. Two balls later Lubbe falls, that same length again, an unadvisable big shot attempted, Linde ensuring there’s no disappointment with a well-judged catch. That broad, easy smile is visible on Archer’s face. If there are any nerves, he’s hiding them well. Given what we know about him – the pre-Test Segway escapades and the dressing-room naps hardly suggest someone overly fussed by the pressures others struggle with – he’s probably taking it all in his stride.
Jason Roy, pushed down to No.3, shelves his usual swagger to show Archer some respect, leaving his first two balls. An advance and miss caps off a wicket maiden.
The next over suggests this thing could take time. It’s not bad, but Jos Buttler is too good, lapping for six, with Roy also finding the middle. Returning later on, Archer gets a moral victory over Buttler, who tangles himself attempting a ramp, but a back-of-the-bat four is the result. After the wicket maiden, the next two have gone for 25.
But his final over is another treat, with the full death-overs range on show. There’s that hard length, which accounts for David Miller. A yorker brings another dot. And in between, a delicious slower ball, Ferisco Adams so early on it he basically played the shot in 2022. Archer finishes with 3-27.
Progress is rarely smooth. Archer will bowl bad balls, bad spells. There may be injuries, maybe serious ones. Perhaps the thing to do is enjoy Archer while we can and when we can and hope but not expect more, because what thankfully remains true is that there are few as captivating to watch in the game right now.