There are certain athletes who are more than just sportsmen. They glow and stand out even in a crowd of a thousand, they shine brighter than the sun and, thanks to their charming, dazzling and electrifying persona, they invariably end up attracting the attention of every single person towards them.
A fleeting glance at them is enough for one to realize that they are, someday, going to be phenoms. These are often the players who turn out to be bigger than their teams and whose theatricals, regardless of whether they’re good or bad, inevitably end up being the single biggest talking point of the matches they play. Jofra Archer is the torchbearer of this player prototype.
Archer was a star long before he made his international debut and to no one’s surprise, his stardom has gone through the roof in the first year of his English career. But through the course of his 14-month long international career, the zestful pacer has also learnt a few harsh lessons and discovered the single biggest con that comes along with stardom that is rarely talked about: the endless scrutiny and criticism from which there’s no hiding or escaping.
Ask him, he’d tell you. The same fans who wanted to carry him on their shoulders and parade him around London after bowling his country to victory in the World Cup final wanted to body slam him after his deplorable 42-over spell in Mount Maunganui and the same people who labelled him ‘The special one’ after his Ashes heroics had no hesitation in calling him ‘overrated’ after his showing in the first innings in Centurion.
For nine months, Archer bore the brunt of it all and paid little attention to the criticism that came his way - until a few days ago. After former West Indies pacer Tino Best publicly chastised the youngster on Twitter after an erratic, soulless performance with the ball in the first innings versus the Windies on Day 3, Archer finally flipped. And he decided to respond to the ex-pacer the only way he knows; the Archer way: first on Twitter, through a borderline insulting Tweet, then on the field, through a heart-stirring display of hostile fast bowling on the final day of the Test to almost win the game for his country.
The spell from Archer on Day 5, where he dismissed three Windies batsmen, injured one and kept his game in the side, was a timely reminder - and a much-needed one - why he is still one of the elites. But, at the same time, it also made one wonder if, through the spell, he ended up proving every single one of his critics right.
With Archer, the question has never been ‘Can he do it?’. Rather, the only question and accusation that has, time and again, been thrown at him is ‘why can’t he do it?’. The juxtaposition of the spells he bowled in the first and the second innings at the Ageas Bowl, in a way, depicted why perennial frustration has grown within fans in the 14 months of Archer they’ve witnessed. On Day 3, he looked like he did not want to be at the ground. He looked more of an archer and less of The Archer - his lines and lengths were all over the place, his pace was down and it looked like he couldn’t wait for the sun to set so that he could get back to his bio-secure room and put his feet up.
Yet just a couple of days later, on the final day, with his side’s back against their walls, he brought to the fore the x-factor that has made every single cricket tragic fall in love with him. And that, exactly, is what has irked the fans for months - the inconsistency that he’s brought to the table. And, albeit it ended up coming off ugly, that was what Tino Best was trying to convey through his tweet, too.
For the abundance of talent he possesses, the mood-swings Archer has had with the ball has, more often than not, ended up portraying him in bad light. And no one but himself has to blame for it, for inconsistency has been something that has co-existed and has been inherent in the pacer’s Test career - and it’s been a feature in his bowling since day one, long before he was run to the ground.
Just four innings into his Test career - mind you, by then he was already being celebrated as a potential English GOAT - Archer put before the 26,000 people at Old Trafford, on the morning of Day 1, an abject display in what was supposed to be the Ashes-deciding Test, given it marked the return of Steve Smith after he’d recovered from his concussion. There, with momentum on England’s side, with them having done the impossible at Headingley, and with Australia under the pump, the speedster looked lackadaisical, uninterested and insouciant - like on Day 3 at the Ageas Bowl not so long ago, his accuracy went for a toss, he was mentally just not there and, for a vast majority of the match, he looked like a Cricket 07 bowler who was being controlled by a player whose ‘pace’ button in the controller was broken.
That was passed as a one-off - obviously and rightfully so because he went and claimed the second six-wicket haul of his career in the very next Test. But then came the two-match Test series against New Zealand which ended up doing a significant amount of damage to his reputation - he ended up with an average of 104.50, the worst among the 11 bowlers who had bowled in that series (minimum 25 overs). That he was over-bowled and mismanaged in that series is undebatable, but the worrisome pattern that emerged in the Old Trafford Test snowballed; it escalated further in the first innings of the Centurion Test against South Africa and every tiny bit of evidence from the Ageas Bowl Test last week indicated that it had now become a habit.
It is also unsurprising that the inauspicious fall of Archer’s numbers coincided with the languid demeanour that he displayed up until a couple of days ago. From until after the Ashes till before his second innings in Southampton, Archer accounted for just 11 wickets from 7 innings - 5 of which came in the second innings at Centurion - and his bowling average of 43.81 was the worst for any pacer in the world who had taken a minimum of 5 wickets in this period. But what’s indispensable for Archer to understand, though, is that the criticism that has been coming his way for the past eight or so months has got less to do with his numbers and more to do with his approach, which has been questionable on many an occasion, and his inconsistency, which has, so far, been the hallmark of his Test career.
If Archer were to self-introspect today, he would probably agree to the fact that he has not done complete justice to his own talent. Of course, it would be downright foolish - and not right - to expect him to bowl spells like he did two days ago - or clock 95 mph - on a consistent basis, but the least he can do is commit to the cause for, at the end of the day, he is an international cricketer who is playing in the team at the expense of a bunch of other world-class bowlers. A good start to the same, right now, might be to tone down the repugnant nature of his performances on days where he is off-colour; he would go a long way in both keeping his reputation intact and helping his team out by improving the 1/10 he’s been delivering on bad days to a 3/10.
Jofra Archer is a generational talent, yes, but the undeniable truth is that he has, till date, lost more matches for his country than he’s won. A Tino Best tweet woke up the beast inside him at the Ageas Bowl, and he must be grateful for that, but unless and until he learns to summon it himself more often, he would, to the fans, look like a disinterested soul who is lost in a world he hates. It is up to him to fix that and, like it or not, every action of his will be inevitably examined through a microscope till the very last ball he bowls owing to his disposition.
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