In a Team Full of Batsmen, England’s Jofra Archer Shows What a Strike-Bowler is Worth

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In a Team Full of Batsmen, England’s Jofra Archer Shows What a Strike-Bowler is Worth

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

J

ofra Archer’s tweets from the past are quite the social media rage these days. It seems England’s latest sensation has travelled through time and foreseen the entire World Cup, judging from his prescient tweets. But despite the spooky nature of these tweets, it is still only the second-most important headline pertaining to Archer these days, because his bowling has been terrorising batsman after batsman and team after team as England enter the final chapter of what is likely to be their greatest cricketing tale ever told.

In 2015, England’s limited-overs cricket hit rock bottom. At least, that is what we were led to believe. Objectively, England had performed far worse in the previous World Cups, but a failure to progress to the knockouts was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Enough was enough. Over the next four years, the English ODI setup underwent a complete metamorphosis, and what emerged is arguably the most exciting brand of cricket the world has ever seen.

Despite a large-scale overhaul in personnel, as many as six players in England’s current squad were also part of that ill-fated 2015 campaign. What has changed on a fundamental level is the mindset. England play a super-exciting style of fearless cricket, leaving their opponents scarred. But this team was built on the back of an impregnable batting juggernaut. England have the tournament’s deadliest opening combination in their ranks. Barring an anchor in Joe Root, their middle order is loaded with explosive batsmen. They bat deeper than any other team in the world.

Constructing a batting lineup that was the envy of the rest of the world came with a price. England compromised on the quality of bowling for preferring all-rounders down the order. They hoped to make up for it with their batting that promised to outscore the opposition on any given day. It worked on most days. But there might be days when this approach fails. What if one of those days is a knockout game, with everything at stake?

A tearaway fast bowler who could instill fear into the opposition’s best batsmen was the missing piece in the jigsaw for England.

A tearaway fast bowler who could instill fear into the opposition’s best batsmen was the missing piece in the jigsaw for England. Enter Archer. A lot of questions were raised for fast-tracking the process of making the Barbados-born quick eligible to represent England. The players weren’t the happiest either. But England sensed the urgency of the times. A squad this good may not be assembled again. A World Cup win at home is an opportunity of a lifetime that cannot be let go of at any cost. Archer had to be brought in. Inviting the temporary ire of the nativist elite wasn’t much of a price. None of it would matter anyway if the move worked.

The move — as England are literally one game away from the coveted prize — has indeed worked. With 19 scalps, Archer has the tournament’s third-highest wicket tally. He has a very realistic chance of finishing second after Sunday’s final against New Zealand. But Archer’s contribution is impossible to measure only by what these numbers reflect. His presence affords England the luxury of a genuine strike bowler right at the top — something that they have lacked for the better part of the last four years while building up to the World Cup dream.

A wicket-taking threat upfront is always an asset for any champion side. Archer has struck as many as seven times for England inside the first 10 overs in the tournament. Of the two finalists, only New Zealand’s Matt Henry matches Archer in this vital period of the innings. Archer’s versatility and variations give England an option to use him both in the middle overs as well as the death to very good effect. Of all bowlers with over 15 wickets, his tournament economy rate of 4.61 is second only to Jasprit Bumrah’s. Archer’s all-round ability with the ball has multiplied the potency of the English attack, and his teammates have greatly prospered with him leading the charge.

A wicket-taking threat upfront is always an asset for any champion side.

In Thursday’s semi-final, Archer put Australia on the back-foot straight away, dismissing their captain Aaron Finch on the very first ball he delivered. On a stage this big, any bowler would be forgiven for searching for his rhythm with a couple of harmless balls outside the off-stump gently shaping away. Archer went right for the kill. Finch’s weakness against the ball coming back in early into his innings is well-known, and Archer wasted no time exploiting it. One might argue Australia never quite recovered from the shock.

Once again, when an innings-steadying partnership between Steven Smith and Glen Maxwell threatened to post a big score, Eoin Morgan turned to Archer. Maxwell expected a barrage of bouncers, but Archer had different plans. A cleverly released knuckle ball that slightly stopped on the pitch left Maxwell completely flummoxed and his checked shot fell all too easily in the hands of a fielder. Smith’s last hope for a partnership came crashing down. The two decisive moments that sealed Australia’s fate in their biggest match of the tournament were both courtesy a bowler England were unsure of a couple of months ago.

On Sunday, England walk in as firm favourites to break their World Cup curse and lift the trophy for the first time, and the whole nation’s hopes rest on Archer once again. For the first time in 14 years, an England game is to be broadcast live on free-to-air television. If England pull this off, it will surpass even the 2005 Ashes win in public imagination. The country recognises how rare a moment this is. Archer has the opportunity to write his legend in stone with a searing spell that breaks the back of New Zealand’s top order and immortalises him as a folk hero of English cricket. And that would be a result even Archer’s Twitter crystal ball had not foreseen.

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