Well, they’ve done it. They’ve broken Jofra. It’s taken nine months, divvied up into one Technicolor English summer and one angst-ridden winter of injury, fudge and friction. But they got there in the end. And – fair play to the lads – in good time too.
Spike Milligan had the phrase “I told you I was ill” inscribed on his headstone. Archer might be tempted to post something similar in response to the news he will miss the next three months of cricket with a long-standing stress fracture of the elbow that has only now been diagnosed correctly.
I told you I had a serious, debilitating injury: one I’ve played with since the World Cup while bowling more overs than any other England cricketer. And while simultaneously being accused, sotto voce, of not always trying, of being a complex character, of not “letting rip” when the team demanded it.
In the meantime, well, not exactly a surprise, is it? In play-writing there’s a principle known as Chekhov’s gun. This dictates that if there’s a rifle hanging above the fireplace in Act One, it’s going to be fired at someone’s head by the end of Act Five.
A similar process applies to England cricket, fast bowlers and any kind of unorthodox, non-standard talent. Stick all three of them on the same stage and you can be pretty sure before long the air will be thick with gunpowder smoke, wrong turns and a generalised fug of error and confusion.
Let’s not dress it up. Archer has been miserably treated this winter, and only occasionally by the opposition. He has carried a serious injury, undiagnosed. He’s been rebuked for riding a Segway, thereby embarrassing his coaches in front of the CEO, a tier-one crime against the blue Lycra hierarchy. He’s been asked to bowl 42 overs in his first overseas Test, or 5% of all the balls he’d ever bowled in first-class cricket. He’s been in tears after failing a fitness test in Johannesburg he should never, with hindsight, have been asked to take.
Look clearly and Archer is entirely blameless in all of these things: a self-made 24-year-old cricketer, an inspiring story against the odds, and a man who might smile to himself at being lectured on toughness in adversity by the pathway products around him. So what is happening here?
Two things stand out. First, Archer is an outsider in so many ways in the narrow parish of elite English cricket. It isn’t simply the fact he grew up in Barbados, or is a rare black male cricketer to earn a full ECB contract. It’s also the fact he’s from another place as a sportsman, talked about as though he’s some bright-eyed creature found shivering in the treeline, the guy who wears his jumper around his waist, who doesn’t carry the familiar signifiers of this sealed sporting-industrial life.
Statements such as these should be seen in the context of both these layers of otherness: “He needs to ramp it up more … The energy and effort have to be there all the time.” “We want every ball to be an effort ball.” “Your body hurts at times … You’ve just got to choose to do it, really.” “Culturally he is different.”
The words, there, of England’s captain, head coach and director of cricket at various times this winter. Speaking, to be clear, about a bloke bowling through a stress fracture, while leading England’s attack in his first season of international cricket. All of these quotes are set in the middle of warm words about Archer’s performances, all couched with sympathetic talk about how much he is putting in. But still, there are words and phrases that jar. Trying hard. Culture. Effort. “Yes, this does hurt, son. But get on with it, eh?”
Plus we’ve had the standard klaxon-parping talk about body language, about unacceptable diet, about the need to really “bust a gut” in training. Nobody else gets this stuff. Nobody mentions Stuart Broad’s up-and-down intensity levels, the sense of a bowler (successfully and correctly) looking after himself. Nobody urges Joe Root himself to put “more effort” in or talks about mental fragility when he keeps getting out just past 50. Why not?
I’m not qualified to define the mechanics of being a black athlete in a white sporting culture. But you do see patterns, faint memories of the way football has been, echoes of Daniel Sturridge (but not Andy Carroll) being accused of having “a low pain threshold” or Ron Noades talking about the need for hard white players to get you through the winter.
I don’t think this is conscious, or founded in ill-will. But it strikes a false note. More to the point, it won’t help get the best out of a stellar, highly specialised cricketing talent. Clearly there is a need to take a look at how England’s homogeneous “team culture” deals with difference, outsiderdom and unusual ways of being a highly talented cricketer.
This isn’t just about accepting some people walk and speak and respond a little differently. It’s about the need to take care of a once-in-a-generation athlete who can bowl his second ball at 92mph, and who should be treated with the level of informed sports science his talent demands.
The issue of “over-bowling” will of course rumble around, a process that feels like using your handcrafted Glock pistol to bang in a fence post, but which is above all a sign of confusion.
The only people I’ve heard talk compelling sense about Archer are Mike Selvey, who compared his style to Jeff Thomson, and seemed to say if you think Archer’s not trying you don’t understand the mechanics of fast bowling; and Archer’s coach at the Rajasthan Royals, who works specifically on short bursts, on understanding his specific physicality, his personality, the way his body works.
For now a quiet apology and a reboot in the relationship would be a good start. Handled right, Archer can be a source of delight. This is what success looks like: right there. Time perhaps to ask him what he needs, rather than tell him.