August 14, 2019: Down 1-0 in The Ashes, England decide to unearth the X-factor that they’d held back in the first Test at Edgbaston.
Okay, no. We’re not going there again. We’ve had enough of sounding like a broken tape. For obvious reasons, every Jofra Archer article has the same lede. This article too was agonizingly close to taking the same route, but let’s not go there; let’s not talk about his debut. Let’s instead take a different path - let’s look at the slide he’s endured in Test cricket post Ashes 2019.
But wait, by now, hasn’t that become a widely discussed topic too?
It has, and the slide is discernible. A career bowling average of 31.04 after 13 Tests suggests that, somewhere along the line, something has gone wrong for Archer. In fact, 42.90 is what his average reads post the Ashes and he, it could be said, has simply not lived up to his expectations. Yet with England set to play 7 home Tests in the next three months, are the Three Lions strong enough to be able to win matches without the presence of Archer? Can England afford to let Archer miss the complete home summer in order to get his elbow fully fixed?
Any answer to the two aforementioned questions will be a mere conjecture but weighing in a multitude of factors, one will not be wrong to assume that England can very much do without Archer against both New Zealand and India, and arguably end up on the winning side in both contests.
The pandemic-struck home summer of 2020 was huge for Archer. The virus-induced break gave him precious time to recover from injuries and, arguably, for the first time in his career, he entered a red-ball stretch 100% fit. Yet despite controversy marring the phase - the bubble-breach fiasco - Archer, in the games he played, turned out to be ordinary: 45.00 was what he averaged across four Tests, scalping just 8 wickets at a hideous strike rate of 94.2.
Among English bowlers (min 2 Tests), only Dom Bess averaged more during the summer and among all bowlers (min 2 Tests), only Naseem Shah and Alzarri Joseph boasted of a strike rate that was worse. Archer, last summer, in fact, picked only more than 1 wicket in an innings twice, and went wicketless in half the summer (4 innings). In all, he exited what was supposed to be ‘his summer’ with the same questions still lingering, and with his reputation severely tarnished.
The numbers above don’t make for pretty reading but to Archer’s defence, he quite wasn’t treated how many felt he should have been. Across 8 innings, only twice was he given the new ball and, incidentally, his best figures for the summer - 3/45 against the Windies in Southampton - came when he had the new cherry in his hand. After just one Test Archer was demoted to being the first or second change and by the time the third Test of the Pakistan series beckoned, he became a mere spectator to the genius of Broad, Anderson and Woakes.
But while Joe Root has historically not had the greatest of captain-bowler relationship with Archer, one could understand why he did what he did by reducing Archer to being a mere sidekick. In Anderson, Broad and Woakes, Root, at his disposal, had England’s greatest pace trio in home conditions and their returns vindicated his decision to sideline Archer. Between them, last summer, Anderson, Broad and Woakes picked an astonishing 62 wickets at 18.46 a piece, accounting for 64.5% of all wickets to fall.
Like Archer, Woakes too took the new ball just twice - and sometimes was reduced to being the third change bowler - but still remarkably ended up averaging just 20.47, bettering even the returns of Anderson. These numbers were registered in conditions that were far from bowler friendly - they were batter friendly, if anything - and thus, heading into the summer, Root and England will have every reason to believe that the aforementioned trio, even without Archer, will be capable of inflicting the same amount of damage on wickets that are expected to be tilted a bit more in the favour of bowlers.
Among the three, though, it is worth singling out Chris Woakes. Anderson and Broad - even at their age - being locks in Tests in England means that, essentially, unless in the rare case of Root fielding an all-pace attack, both Archer and Woakes will be fighting for one vacant slot. On paper it might seem to be a fair battle but, really, taking numbers into consideration, Archer is not in the same league as Woakes in home conditions. Among all bowlers to have taken at least 70 wickets in England, Woakes’ SR of 44.8 is the third best in history.
Among English bowlers, his average of 22.87 is the seventh best and he, remarkably, at home, boasts a significantly better record than both Anderson and Broad. The presence of two behemoths has meant that Woakes’ astonishing record has slipped under the radar, but there can be an argument made that even if Archer was fit, there still would be no way he would demand a place in the starting XI over the Birmingham man. Thus at least as long as Woakes is fit, England simply would not feel the absence of Archer.
What works in Archer’s favour is that he is an enforcer; someone who offers a package different to any other bowler in the squad. This is true, and we witnessed the upside of the same in Ashes 2019. But the question to be asked is - do England really need an enforcer at home with a Dukes ball, in conditions that will more often than not favor the seamers? Since the turn of last decade, 13 bowlers (min 10 wickets) have boasted a bowling average under 25.00 in English conditions, and remarkably none of them are enforcers who bowl with express pace. The closest to an Archer prototype is Bumrah, and he stands 17th in the list with an average of 25.92.
More importantly, can Archer be classified as an enforcer? The 26-year-old has often come under fire for his lethargic spells which have been down on pace, and last summer we were witness to several of those. He seldom turned the heat up with Lord’s 2019-esque spells and was, for large parts, content with bowling line and lengths, trying to beat batsmen the conventional way. In fact, writing for the Daily Mail, Archer himself said how he got frustrated with the ‘enforcer’ tag.
“People look back at my debut performance in the Ashes Test at Lord's last year and expect that kind of display everywhere, but it is unrealistic,” he said, indicating that he saw himself not as an enforcer, but an all-round package like, say, Bumrah.
This is true and Archer himself has shown plenty of times in the past that he is a master at taking wickets the ‘conventional’ way. Most recently, through his spell for Sussex - which included an absolute jaffa to Zak Crawley that bamboozled the batter by moving away in the last moment - Archer showed that he does not need pace to exploit conditions at home. This basically puts Archer in the bracket of ‘seamers’ - and not your express pacers like Wood and Stone.
In that case, is there any evidence to suggest that he, at home, can exploit conditions better than, say, an Ollie Robinson or a Craig Overton? Not necessarily. Across the past three domestic seasons, both Robinson and Overton have claimed over 200 first-class wickets at under 20 a piece and, this season are again the top-two wicket-taking seamers, both averaging under 15. Both Robinson and Overton’s FC averages - 21 and 23 - are a level above Archer’s 25 and both are tall seamers who are simply inherently wired to thrive in English conditions. This is not to claim that both Robinson and Overton are better picks at home - we don’t know that yet - but the numbers tell us that they would be more than capable of filling in for Archer, without the side experiencing a drop in quality.
At 26, Archer is far from a finished product in the longest format. He has, after all, had only two full home seasons and is, unlike any other cricketer in England, someone who has had to carry the weight of undue and unrealistic expectations. But if Joe Root and Chris Silverwood had to lose his services in one format and one place and still play at the level they desire to, it would undoubtedly be ‘Test cricket and England.’ At this stage in his career, England can afford to lose Archer in Tests at home, for not only do the conditions mitigate his absence, there is also an equally able reserve pace battery that can match his impact, if not do better. What the Three Lions can’t afford to, though, is lose Archer’s services for the WT20, and that is precisely why these next three months need to be utilized to get him fit in time for the global extravaganza.