During the build-up to this Test, Chris Silverwood and Joe Root took turns to give a public hurry-up to the man they regard as key to creating England’s much-cherished attack for all seasons.
There can hardly be a more scrutinised bowler in the country than Jofra Archer, and possibly the world. If you don’t have an opinion on how England should use him, you probably don’t watch much cricket. For coach and captain, the moment had arrived to take control.
Two days before the game, Silverwood said he had urged Archer to ‘step on the gas’. Next day, Root echoed him.
There can hardly be a more scrutinised bowler in England or the world than Jofra Archer
Joe Root encouraged Archer to bowl quicker as he echoed Chris Silverwood’s comments
It was the most decisive intervention yet in a debate that has rumbled on ever since Archer struggled on a blustery morning in Manchester against Australia last summer, encouraging some to question his motivation – and others to wonder if that criticism stemmed from unconscious racial bias.
So began a prolonged but delicate dance around the subject, and it dominated England’s pre-Christmas tour of New Zealand. There, Root was pilloried for bowling Archer for 42 overs during the thrashing at Mount Maunganui, when he had never previously bowled more than 30 in a first-class innings.
After that match, England’s director of cricket Ashley Giles, perhaps unwittingly, got to the heart of the sensitive and evolving relationship between bowler and captain. Archer was, he said, ‘culturally different’. Root wanted fire and brimstone from a quick born in Barbados, without wanting to appear as if he expected fire and brimstone simply because he was born in Barbados.
In the build up to the game Silverstone had encouraged Archer to ‘step on the gas’
On went the dance, as Archer took an expensive five-for during another overseas defeat, against South Africa at Centurion, then was laid low by an elbow injury which many blamed squarely on his workload in New Zealand. Root denied overbowling him, while occasionally hinting that he wanted Archer to embrace his inner speedster.
This summer, things took another twist when Archer said during the first Test against Pakistan that the pitch at Emirates Old Trafford did not encourage a fast bowler to ‘bend his back’. Up in the Sky commentary box, Michael Holding pulled no punches: ‘If you’re capable of bowling 95mph, you should steam in for four or five overs and show people that you are quick.’
Did Holding embolden the England management to be more explicit? Whatever the truth, his formula has certainly been adopted by Root in this game – and must surely serve as the template for tough away series next year against India and Australia.
The logic is simple. An attack already containing three right-arm seamers operating in the low-to-mid 80mphs – Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes – hardly needs a fourth.
Did the comments made by Michael Holding embolden the management to be more explicit?
And if Archer has always protested, with some justification, that there is more to his game than rattling the speedgun, then his value to a team that has designs on a series win in Australia for only the second time since 1986-87 is clear: on heartless pitches, armed only with the Kookaburra, England need something extra.
On the second evening of this third Test, it was clear Archer had taken the message on board, producing two overs of serious heat while Anderson moved to 596 Test wickets at the other end. It was as threatening as he had looked since his burst in West Indies’ second innings in the first of England’s six biosecure Tests this summer.
But on that occasion, with Broad dropped, he had the new ball. Since then, with Broad apparently unstoppable, Archer has had to show what he can do with the old.
After sending down a maiden on a rain-splattered third morning, he embarked on his new modus operandi after lunch with a four-over spell that included one averaging 90mph and another 91mph. Fawad Alam ducked and weaved, and Azhar Ali came so close to gloving a snorter that England used up a review.
In his next spell – four overs again – Archer pinned Mohammad Rizwan on the grille as he tried to sway out of the way. He was the seventh batsman he has hit on the helmet since his Test debut. In that period, no other Test bowler in the world has sconed a batsman more than four times.
Archer even breached 90mph in his next spell – five overs – and at one stage went round the wicket to a field containing no slips, but a fine third man and a fine leg. This was the role of enforcer, once the job of Broad, now bequeathed to Archer.
His figures, it’s true, weren’t the tidiest: he finished with 17-3-58-0. But Root won’t mind that, because Archer was bowling to a prescription. As Andrew Strauss, one of Root’s predecessors, put it on commentary: ‘Don’t make him bowl the dogsbody overs.’
It is clear that Jofra will require inner strength and a sympathetic captain in the years ahead
Yet the way forward will not be straightforward. And no sooner had Archer settled into the kind of groove that may go on to define his career, than Holding himself was issuing a warning.
‘He can bowl just as fast if he doesn’t run in as quickly, and I think if he doesn’t run in as quickly, then he has more control,’ he said. ‘He’s bowling fast. But he can bowl at the same pace without charging in, and if he doesn’t charge in – which in my opinion he is not accustomed to – he has better control and puts the ball in better areas.’
It’s possible, then, that Archer can’t win. He will need inner strength and a sympathetic captain in the years ahead.