When Jofra Archer tore in to bowl against Pakistan at the Oval earlier this month, he instantly crossed one of those cricketing thresholds that sets tongues wagging and pulses racing. And that wasn’t all he did.
By passing 90mph, he announced himself to those unfamiliar with his work as that rarest of breeds: an England bowler whose main weapon is pace, not swing or seam.
By doing it repeatedly, he produced what was reckoned to be the quickest one-day spell for England in a decade. It was cricket in the raw — and a shame rain limited him to figures of 4-2-6-1.
Jofra Archer could prove to be England’s hero at the Cricket World Cup this summer
Now 24, Archer was born on the south coast of Barbados and rolled out his own wicket
For Archer, it was just another step on his remarkable journey, across the world and to the top.
A young man, born on the south coast of Barbados, who rolled his own wicket on a piece of common land near his home and built a practice net with his stepfather. A kid who learned how to bowl swing with a tennis ball half-wrapped in electrical tape.
That same boy who will now hope to swap that makeshift net for the Lord’s square if he can bowl England into their first World Cup final in 27 years.
Watching on at the Oval that day was Jon Lewis, the former Test seamer and current head of the England Lions who mentored Archer throughout his time at Sussex as the club’s bowling coach.
As if we weren’t already excited enough, Lewis casually declared he had seen his man bowl faster in county cricket. At the Oval, he felt, Archer was prioritising accuracy over pace.
It was quite a thought. Truly, his days as a batsman and part-time leg-spinner in his native Barbados are beginning to sound like some kind of cosmic joke.
‘You could see very early that he was special,’ Lewis tells The Mail on Sunday. ‘He is going to be a generational cricketer. We talk about the likes of Anderson and Broad — those names roll off the tongue. Back in the day it was McGrath and Lee, before them Ambrose and Walsh.
‘I believe Archer will be one of those sorts of cricketers. He has the ability, the determination to succeed, and a competitive nature. People say he is here for the money. But he came here with nothing. He left his family to move here with a long-term ambition. That is huge.’
The rise and rise of Jofra Archer, from a kid who enjoyed messing around with tapeball cricket to a strapping 24-year-old confident enough to name Indian captain Virat Kohli as the scalp he would most like to claim over the next few weeks, already feels like the story of this World Cup. And the tournament doesn’t start until Thursday.
Archer learned how to bowl swing with a tennis ball half-wrapped in electrical tape
Now Archer is stepping out to represent England on the big stage
Actually, strapping isn’t quite the right word. Archer is tall, certainly, but he is lithe not bulky, and prowls to the wicket rather than charges. Much of his pace comes from a powerful shoulder action. And, as Lewis implied, he often seems to bowl within himself.
It is an optical illusion that could yet help England lift the trophy at Lord’s on July 14.
If the world were a fairer place, Archer might now be lining up for West Indies rather than England; his British passport comes courtesy of his English father, Frank, who used to drive trains on the London Underground before retiring to Liverpool. His mother, Joelle, is from Barbados.
Archer was a latecomer to fast bowling, ditching the leg-breaks only after a growth spurt at 15. He then made early headlines as a schoolboy in 2013, taking a five-for and hitting 86 to help Christchurch Foundation win a cup final.
But he was unimpressed to be left out of the West Indies squad for the Under-19 World Cup in 2014. Back in Barbados, there is a feeling among some that the West Indies turned their back on him at a time when Archer was suffering from a back injury and most needed support.
Archer decided to make a go of it across the Atlantic, where Chris Jordan — another Bajan adopted by England — suggested Sussex.
These days, Jordan — six years Archer’s senior — is a confidant, best friend and team-mate, sharing in his successes and cajoling him along the way. ‘I’ve been on his journey with him from the start,’ says Jordan. ‘I know what he’s been through and what his mindset is. Every time he’s had to step up, the level of his game has risen too.’
It wasn’t always easy. Archer arrived in England not entirely in one piece, the result of stress fractures in his back — a fast bowler’s painful rite of passage.
The upshot was he began life with Middleton-on-Sea in Division Two of the Sussex Cricket League as a batsman, though his current first-class average of 31 suggests this wasn’t the worst idea.
Until then, Middleton-on-Sea, a south-coast village 20 miles west of Hove, was probably best known for once being the home of Chesney Allen, one half of the wartime double act Flanagan and Allen.
But Archer did his best to change that. In one of his early games, against Lindfield, he offered to complete the over of an injured colleague, with startling consequences. Middleton’s captain Brandon Hanley told the Evening Standard: ‘He bowled off four paces and his first ball nearly killed the poor batter.’
Mark Davis was coaching the Sussex 2nd XI. ‘We had heard about this lad, who was supposed to be pretty useful,’ he says. ‘We got him down to the nets and you could already see that he was an incredible talent. At that stage he still had a bit of a back injury.
‘He was only bowling around 60 per cent and still hurrying batters. He had an immense ability. I was very keen to keep him involved.
‘I remember we had a practice at Hove to prepare for the T20. He was coming off a short run with a sore back, but he just landed all these yorkers. You just thought, “Wow, this kid is sore and he can still operate like that”. He bowled with such ease and pace and control you knew he was special.
‘Then with the bat, I remember in the nets at Hove saying to the director of cricket that Jofra was as good a batter as you have got in the academy — and that’s not even his main skill.’
Archer went home to Barbados and sorted out his back problem with Nhamo Winn, a local coach. And he worked like a Trojan, rolling his own wicket with the help of his step-father in a yard across the road from where he lived.
Much will be made in the years ahead about Archer’s relaxed demeanour, but it should never obscure the ambition that has culminated in his late inclusion in England’s 15-man World Cup squad at the expense of David Willey.
‘Everyone knows he has got pace, he’s athletic, he can move the ball,’ says Lewis. ‘But it was what was behind it: the determination, the drive, the hunger to succeed, the curiosity about how to do that.
‘To be able to do that on his own, he was very easy to coach. We still talk constantly and he is now planning how to be best in the world.’
When Archer returned to Middleton in 2015, he began to flourish. In his second match, he took six wickets against Billingshurst, followed by four against Brighton and Hove.
Two games later, he singlehandedly reduced Cuckfield to eight for five, only for injury to prevent him from bowling more than six overs. Cuckfield recovered to make a winning 265 for eight.
Archer, who grew up in Barbados, pictured with his mother Joelle
Good judges liked what they saw, and the following summer Archer made his first-class debut for Sussex against the touring Pakistanis. Misbah-ul-Haq eventually declared his side’s first innings on 363 for five, of which Archer’s contribution were figures of 22-7-49-4.
His victims were all serious Test cricketers — Mohammad Hafeez (whom he dismissed again in the second innings), Shan Masood, Azhar Ali and Misbah himself.
Since then, his stock has only risen. In 2017, he was by a distance Sussex’s leading wicket-taker in the County Championship, with 61 at an average of 25. In 2018, his 42 victims cost only 17 apiece.
All the while he has turned himself into one of the most prized commodities in any self-respecting T20 league. His performances at Australia’s Big Bash have become the stuff of YouTube legend, while he recently lit up the Indian Premier League, playing in the same Rajasthan Royals side as Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes.
Others might have let the success go to their head. Archer, by all accounts, has remained modesty personified. Along with the young Bermudan batsman Delray Raw-lins, Archer spent two years living with Lewis, and slotted in effortlessly, even if his Xbox sessions occasionally interrupted the peace and quiet.
‘He was part of the family,’ says Lewis. ‘He just fitted in really well. He is inherently a good person, very well brought up — although it will be me renting off him these days! Would he chip in much with the cleaning? No. But he was a teenager. He is a good person and he did his bit around the house.’
Despite coming from humble beginnings, Archer could become a superstar for England
Another story speaks volumes for his humility. In 2015, Archer and Akeem Jordan, a talented young West Indian bowler, agreed to join a social cricket tour to Cornwall with a team called the Two Hopes. In one game, the pair added 180 to set up a 10-run win, but it was Archer’s attitude off the field that most endeared him to his team-mates.
Not only did he help out with the cooking and the washing-up at the large communal house rented by the cricketers, but when he fell second ball in one match he happily did stints as a scorer and umpire. There were no airs and graces: he simply mucked in.
‘The first thing that struck us all about Jofra was his manners,’ said a team-mate. ‘He immediately struck up a good rapport with everyone.’
It is a trait that has made his late entry into the England squad easier than it might have been. Archer had not initially expected to qualify until 2022, but a change in the ECB’s regulations brought forward the date to this year.
In 2015 Archer and fellow West Indian Akeem Jordan (right) scored tons for Two Hopes club side in Cornwall
That briefly caused a tremor of apprehension among the seamers who had spent the last four years helping to turn around England’s one-day fortunes, and who knew deep down that one of them would be making way for the new starlet.
The same process will no doubt be repeated when Joe Root and the other selectors sit down to finalise their plans for the Ashes, which begin on August 1. With Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Stokes all seemingly shoo-ins, Archer will have to keep Chris Woakes, Mark Wood and Sam Curran at bay if he is to claim the final seamer’s spot.
Lewis is optimistic about his prospects. ‘People get obsessed by this wonderful T20 player, but I actually think he is a better red-ball bowler than white. He can move it at 90mph — there’s not much movement with the white ball — and his seam presentation is excellent.
‘Lots of people can swing the ball: it’s controlling it. That work really stood out. He went back to Barbados and learned how to control. That is the difference between the best. People like Philander and McGrath did not have express pace but they controlled it. If you can do both, you are talking about Ambrose and Waqar Younis.
‘All the great fast bowlers have different styles but the fundamentals that underpin it are the same: alignment towards the target, whip in the shoulder, a rhythmical run-up. Archer has it all.’