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The paceman cometh

Jofra Archer, England's new fast bowling star, is the kind of cricketer England have been looking for since before he was born.

Once in a blue moon, English cricket has a golden summer. It happened in 1981 and 2005, and it is happening again in 2019. A heart-stopping World Cup final has been followed by an Ashes series of high drama. Ben Stokes, England’s dynamic all-rounder, keeps grabbing the headlines, but the fans already knew about him. The true revelation has been a young fast bowler who spends his free time playing the online video game Fortnite.

Making his Test debut at Lord’s in mid-August, Jofra Archer was fearsome. His speed touched 96mph, which gave the batsmen facing him less than half a second to react. Steve Smith, Australia’s best batsman, had won the first Test almost on his own, but he couldn’t handle Archer’s pace. One delivery turned Smith’s forearm purple; another thudded into his neck. The crowd at Lord’s didn’t know whether to be electrified or sickened. Smith, who had opted not to wear a neck guard, sank to the ground, retired hurt, came back to bat, looked disorientated, missed a straight ball and departed, for once, without a century.

In just his first Test, Archer had taken part in a classic duel. He went straight from new boy to senior player: the England captain, Joe Root, used him more than Stuart Broad, who has played over a hundred Tests. When battle resumed in the third Test under thick Yorkshire clouds, Archer curbed his pace, concentrated on accuracy, and dismantled Australia’s batting with six wickets for only 45 runs, while Smith, still recovering, watched from the dressing room. When Stokes sealed England’s comeback in a blaze of stroke-play Archer’s contribution was eclipsed. Nonetheless, he had changed the tone of the series.

Archer is the kind of cricketer England have been looking for since before he was born, in Barbados, 24 years ago. From the mid-Seventies to the mid-Nineties, Test cricket was ruled by West Indian fast bowlers. They were harder, better, faster and stronger than the rest. Their dominance started in the long hot summer of 1976, when an ageing set of England batsmen, wearing caps not helmets, found themselves facing the ferocious deliveries of Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel, supported by Vanburn Holder – the four sportsmen of the apocalypse. Mike Selvey, later the Guardian cricket correspondent, played for England at the time. “If you take Archer and imagine four in the same team, and another four in the wings,” Selvey tweeted last month, “you get a flavour of Test cricket in the late 1970s and 1980s.”

For 25 years West Indies ruled the cricket world while their opponents collected bruises and broken bones. The England selectors, it was once said, could find a fast bowler by whistling down a coalmine; now they looked to the inner cities instead. A Jamaican-born Londoner, Norman Cowans, became the first England fast bowler of Caribbean descent. When the new chairman of selectors, Ted Dexter, picked a squad to tour the West Indies in 1989, he declared that England would “fight fire with fire”. It was a very English way of saying “we’ve got four West Indian-born quick bowlers too”.

There was just one problem. Anglo-Caribbean fast bowlers never lasted very long. Not one of them, even now, has made it to 50 Tests. The most durable, Phil DeFreitas, played 44 Tests; the fastest, Devon Malcolm, managed 40; the most promising, Dean Headley – born in England but grandson of the Jamaican legend George Headley – played only 15. The captains, managers and selectors, meanwhile, were almost invariably white. Ray Illingworth, English cricket’s supremo in the mid-1990s, treated Malcolm with unconcealed disdain – in South Africa, of all places.

The dressing room became more welcoming after Nasser Hussain, born in Chennai, was appointed England captain in 1999. But while an all-white XI had ceased to be the norm, sporty Anglo-Caribbean kids now wanted to be footballers. After calling up ten black fast bowlers between 1982 and 1998, England’s Test team had added only one more by 2018 – Chris Jordan, brought up in Barbados and then whisked off to Dulwich College on a sports scholarship.

Jordan’s Test career was brief, but it blazed a trail for another young Bajan. When Jordan was in Barbados in 2011, he faced a teenage bowler called Jofra Archer in the nets. Asked how good Archer was, Jordan said: “The sky’s the limit.” The son of a Bajan mother and an English father, Archer played for West Indies Under-19s before moving to Sussex on Jordan’s recommendation. Waiting to fulfil the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB)’s residency requirement, he spent his summers disconcerting county batsmen with his deceptive pace and his winters making waves in Twenty20, the short form of cricket in which everything is fast, including the bucks. At 22, Archer earned £800,000 in two months from the Indian Premier League.

As this summer’s World Cup approached, the ECB’s seven-year qualification period mysteriously shrank to three. The national selector, Ed Smith, didn’t just pick Archer at the first opportunity: he recalled Jordan to England’s 50-over squad to help make him feel at home. Take that, Ray Illingworth.

By 30 May, Archer was opening the bowling in the World Cup and rattling the helmet of the great South African batsman Hashim Amla. On 14 July, Archer was entrusted with the tie-breaking Super Over in the World Cup final, under pressure that no England bowler had faced before. He emerged not just a winner but a cult figure. With his gold necklace and laid-back air, he fits into a great Caribbean tradition: bowling like the wind, looking as if he’s playing on the beach. England have discovered a superstar. Now they just need to look after him.

This article appears in the 06 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war