When Jofra Archer stands and listens to the national anthems blaring out before England’s ICC Cricket World Cup clash against the West Indies in Southampton on Friday 14 June, it would be no surprise if Rally Round the West Indies coursed through his veins more naturally than God Save the Queen.
Of course it would. The brand new England superstar grew up Bajan, his cricketing culture honed by a tradition that was equal parts relaxation and explosion. Archer, by virtue of his outrageous talents, has become one of the most prized possessions in contemporary cricket, because he brings that rare gift of being able to change a game with a single moment of brilliance.
Someone who knows the young Archer better than most is South African coach and fellow Bajan, Ottis Gibson, who watched Archer flourish from a young boy into the man whose ambition and conviction was so bold that it compelled him to cross oceans.
“He’s fresh. He’s obviously talented and he’s got a lot of pace. And he’s from Barbados, so I am glad that they have picked him,” Gibson said of the 24-year-old.
“It is obviously well documented that they [the West Indies] didn’t pick him for the Under-19s, and then he chose a different path. I am really happy for him,” Gibson said sincerely.
But he was hoping Archer wouldn’t do too well for England in the opening World Cup match against South Africa. As it was, Archer made an impression almost immediately, taking three wickets in a 104-run victory for his new side.
Archer’s dangerous speed
More than the wickets, though, Archer delivered a significant blow that made the world sit up. He blitzed through an attempted hook shot from Proteas batsman Hashim Amla, the ball clattering into the veteran’s helmet well before he had completed the stroke.
In sport, speed has almost always been decisive. Hall of Fame boxer Floyd Mayweather’s genius lay in his instinctive ability to land a punch in the same millisecond he was avoiding one. Again and again, he got there before his opponent had time to close the door, demoralising foes with his combination of nerve and sang-froid.
Archer also has that air of nonchalance, and it was on full throttle in his opening salvo against South Africa. His assault on Amla was one of those moments where his pace was clearly evident, surprising one of the world’s most respected players. He has that knack within him; that seemingly effortless, fast-twitch release that can put a significant hurry on players who usually seem to have all the time in the world.
“We knew Jofra from a long time [back]. He is from Barbados, where we are from. He’s not new to us. Yes, he is bowling quickly, but there is nothing that we are not accustomed to. We are looking forward to the challenge and we will see how we go on Friday [against England],” West Indies interim coach Floyd Reifer said with relish.
“I’m sure Jofra will be chomping at the bit to come at us, and we will be ready for him.”
West Indians proud of Archer
Unlike some countries that lose players to England in particular, the West Indies have always been sanguine about the ways of the world. There was no fuss about Archer, because they understood. Reifer watched him grow up and has seen Archer use the money and fame that the game has already bought to build a family home that reflects his appreciation for his upbringing.
In a funny old way, the West Indians are proud of Archer. They are proud to see him spread his wings and find a home in a country that will make him far richer than he might have ever dreamt while playing cricket as a young boy in Barbados.
“He made his choice,” Reifer smiled, when asked if he wished that Archer was playing in maroon instead of the pale English blue.
Archer’s path to a better life may have been cricket, but he joins a long line of migrants who have left the islands for a new life in England. Doctors, nurses, teachers, labourers … they all cross the ocean in search of stability, because life in the islands is not all roses.
Now, in the heart of England’s plans, Archer will find himself cosseted by a £1 million (about R18.7 million) central contract, the going rate for a multiformat star, which he will surely become in due course. He may have to give up some of his global Twenty20 (T20) gigs, but the stability and security that being an English player provides is worth a lot more to a man who has had his injuries in the past.
How could his countrymen begrudge him, knowing the financial challenges that come with life? It is not in the West Indian psyche to be envious. Rather, they look to beat their own path – and enjoy the ride.
It is a rare thing and Archer appears to have this sense of security in spades. Completely unaffected, because his cricket is making all the right noises. What is more, he has the ability to deliver when the biggest audience is watching. England might initially have figured him for a white-ball player, but his blockbustability will make it difficult to leave him out of The Ashes, which will close this mother of all English summers.
The ‘Archer rule’
Given his skill and speed, one would have thought him a no-brainer for England, especially after he stated his intention to try and play for them. At that point, the existing English and Wales Cricket Board rules meant he would have had to wait until 2022 to be eligible, because he had moved to the United Kingdom after turning 18.
Thus, he would fill his time with Indian Premier League and Big Bash and other T20 gigs, in between his regular service for Sussex county. But that qualification process changed in November 2018, putting Archer squarely in the frame to qualify for England in time for the Cricket World Cup. Some have dubbed it the “Archer rule”, as his availability was the most convenient of mutualisms.
Suddenly, England had the option to add the game’s next superstar to their vault of World Cup weapons. Asked if he had been looking forward to playing in the tournament, Archer was typically understated.
“They only changed the rule three months ago, so I can’t say that I had my eyes set on the World Cup. If I had just played the Pakistan series, I would have been happy,” he shrugged.
He remains one of the most unaffected young stars in the game, his attention not perturbed by the rash of cameras pointed in his direction. He appears focused purely on unleashing his unique set of skills across the world and soaking in whatever this next chapter provides for him.
Is he nervous about being at this elevated level, playing for the favourites?
“It doesn’t feel much different to me. My role hasn’t changed,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s just cricket,” he added about playing in the World Cup, citing the need to not build it up too much in his head.
Archer must just take wickets, hold catches and smack runs whenever he has the opportunity. Whether he is playing in Mumbai or Manchester, the mandate for him is pretty simple: go out and entertain. This makes him the ideal addition to a team that lives with its foot on the accelerator.
Kevin Pietersen, the trailblazer
Archer almost made an emotionally charged debut in the West Indies earlier this year, similar to Kevin Pietersen’s international introduction in South Africa. But his eligibility kicked in too late to take him along to the islands as a tourist.
To be fair, they are different beasts, Archer and Pietersen. For one thing, Archer has not had the chest-thumping, English Lions-tattooed hysteria and bombast that defined Pietersen’s start as an English player. In the early days, you either loved “KP” or you hated him. He tried his level best to fit in – to be quintessentially English – and some found that excessive patriotism a touch gaudy.
But for all the concerns off the field, Pietersen was a winner who provided lavishly on the field. He played in 104 Test matches, captained the country and played some of the most outrageous innings ever seen from an Englishman, natural or naturalised. Pietersen was the case study after which the signing of Archer and his ilk are no-brainers.
Daily Mirror cricket writer Dean Wilson said in conversation about Archer that if you promised right now that the soft-spoken kid from Barbados will have the impact and influence that the Maritzburg-born maverick enjoyed, then English cricket would open its arms gladly.
The very best players are worth the upheaval, worth the extra attention and scrutiny. They are game-changers. In typical West Indian fashion, Archer shrugged his shoulders and waved off the attention and expectation with a smile when asked if he realised just how many people were looking forward to seeing him performing at the 2019 Cricket World Cup.
“It’s just cricket. If you overthink it, then that’s when stuff usually happens. I just want to keep things as simple as possible,” said Archer.
It was said so casually that one might have thought he was being inadvertently obtuse about the magnitude of the tournament in which he now finds himself playing. He isn’t though. He is revelling in being part of an England team with as good a chance as ever to win the ultimate prize in sport.
He is central to the England game plan now, with his pace snuffing out any lingering doubts about his selection at the expense of other players.
‘Hitting’ a batsman for ‘six’
That he was picked, and that an entire rulebook was revisited to accommodate him, shows exactly what English cricket and its executives think of him. Archer is worth the fuss. He is worth the risk and the expense and even the alienation of others who were there before him.
He is worth it, and then some.
Archer is the type of player that gets people huddled around a television, if they are not already at the game. He inspires little kids to go outside and try to replicate his actions.
When he trimmed the top of Soumya Sarkar’s stumps in England’s clash against Bangladesh, the pace on the ball continued to carry it all the way over the wicketkeeper and beyond the boundary for “six”. It was one of those weird, cool things that happen from time to time at the highest level.
These stars defy logic and Archer’s antics in that game – and, indeed, over the past few years – have captured the imagination of a public ready to embrace new heroes. English football has Raheem Sterling as a shimmering example and rugby has Maro Itoje as its poster boy.
All of them are still only 24-years-old, with their sporting worlds at their feet. You cannot name a better English footballer than Sterling right now, while Itoje is the colossus at the forefront of all that is great about English rugby.
Archer is cricket’s freshest offering and every one of his six wickets thus far at the World Cup have felt like mini events. His newness is his ally. He is still introducing himself, even though he had the entire country at hello.
All three of these contrasting characters face added pressure to thrill spectators whenever they take to the field, but they have all spent much of their formative years proving themselves. Their roots are from far beyond the UK, but personal circumstances and outstanding talent have brought them this far, all playing under one flag.
They are as English as a Sunday roast, but they are much more besides. They are different gravy. They are the new face of a modern England, one whose foundations are not necessarily framed in a conservative box.
They all know where they come from and are unapologetically proud of their roots. And just as proud to be English. Archer didn’t need much convincing to turn out for England instead of the West Indies.
Against the West Indies, he will line up against former teammates from his Under-19 days. He will try his utmost to lead England to another victory, on a path he and the team hope will carry them to the World Cup title.
Up there, in the stands, his family will look on with pride. Will their loyalties be conflicted? “Their priority lies with me. Simple as that,” Archer smiled when asked.
While the most famous Archer in the world might refrain from singing both anthems, his beaming family will not face the same challenge. Jofra Archer, born in Barbados but reimagined in England, has provided them with the chance to have the best of both perspectives.
It’s a whole new world.