It’s the expectations that are the problem. If most young cricketers claimed three five-wicket hauls in their first seven Tests, the reports would be glowing. Equally, if most young cricketers achieved a bowling average of 27.40 in that time and showed the skills and maturity to be trusted with the Super Over in the World Cup final a couple of months into their international career, you could think they were doing pretty well. But for one reason or another, more seems to be expected of Jofra Archer.
Look at Sam Curran. He’s played 14 Tests and not taken any five-fors. And if that feel like an unfair comparison – Curran is an all-rounder, after all – then compare Archer’s record to those of Stuart Broad and James Anderson over a similar period. After seven Tests, Broad had a Test bowling average of 45.33 (with a best of 3 for 54), while Anderson’s was 31.57 (with two five-fors and a best of 5 for 73). Even compared to the best of modern England, Archer is flying.
One of the things that has become clear from watching England training in Port Elizabeth over the last few days – and not everyone with the strongest opinions has been doing so – is that Archer is not fully fit. It’s not a case of him coasting or England demanding anything unreasonable. It has been a case of them asking him to prove his match fitness and him struggling to do so.
He was significantly slower than Mark Wood on Monday – not 5 or 6mph, but 10 or 20 – and spent much of Wednesday talking to the physio and doctor. After one of the 20 or so deliveries he bowled, Paul Collingwood – one of the assistant coaches – said “Well bowled, Colly” to him; a reference to the gentle pace he was generating. It was said, and taken, in good spirits but it wasn’t as inaccurate as you may think. Archer simply did not look match-fit.
In such a scenario, it would not just be unwise but irresponsible to include him in the team for the Port Elizabeth Test. He has a precious skill and he requires careful and sympathetic handling. He is not the first fast bowler to miss a game or two through injury and he will not be the last. Such incidents do not usually precipitate questions about the management of the player or the player’s desire for the task. There’s not much evidence to suggest they should here, either.
The good thing, from an England perspective, is that they have Mark Wood to come into the side in his place. Wood is probably the one man in England who can bowl at least as quickly as Archer and he has worked hard to earn this opportunity. He has reported some soreness after his exertions on Sunday and Monday and hardly bowled on Wednesday but, as long as he suffers no adverse reaction on Thursday morning, he is likely to be selected ahead of Chris Woakes here. With a bit of luck, Archer and Wood may play together in Johannesburg.
But for all the Tests Wood has missed and all the injuries he’s suffered, it’s hard to recall an occasion when his desire has ever been questioned. For some reason – and it may simply be that Archer, like David Gower before him, makes the game look so absurdly easy that we set unreasonably high standards for them – Archer seems to face questions over his commitment and his desire. It’s far from clear the motivation of all the critics is good.
It’s surely relevant, though, that Archer moved to a nation crying out for a fast bowler. Yes, England has had glimpses of fast bowlers in recent times – Devon Malcolm, Andrew Flintoff (who took just four five-fors in his 183-match first-class career), Steve Harmison and Wood for example – but not for many years have they had a man with what appears to be the whole package: the repeatable action; the pace; the skill; the fitness. There were times during the World Cup when he made bowling over 90mph look ludicrously easy.
But it never is. And England’s desire to play with their new toy has seen Archer used pretty unsparingly in the first eight months or so of his international career. He was the only man in the World Cup to bowl 100 overs and required a pain-killing injection ahead of the Super Over in the final. He bowled 42 overs in an innings – more than Broad has ever managed in a Test innings – in Mount Maunganui and then heard Joe Root, his captain, suggest “there are certain spells when he can unleash a little more”.
To be fair to Root, it’s understandable he would want to keep returning to a man of Archer’s skill so often. Previous captains used to rely on James Anderson and Graeme Swann in a similar way. But we have, perhaps, been spoiled by Anderson’s resilience. He really has been something of a freak. It’s better, perhaps, to remember that Swann retired relatively early with an elbow injury.
Comparisons with Anderson probably don’t help, either. “He’ll never play 150 Tests,” a sour-faced England supporter sneered as he watched nets on Wednesday. Well no, he probably won’t. But only one fast bowler in history has. If all others are deemed half-hearted failures, we are setting the bar impossibly high.
Root also seems to be learning how to handle his key fast bowler. Ahead of this game, he spoke sensibly of the need to take the long-term view with fitness management and provided another reminder of Archer’s relative inexperience. Temper those expectations, was the basic takeaway.
“Jofra is very much at the start of his career and I think managing workloads is important,” Root said. “He’s played a huge amount of cricket since he’s come into the international arena and we’ve seen a little bit of pushback from his body with that elbow injury.
“He’s come into international cricket off the back of some brilliant domestic Twenty20 cricket, in particular. His reputation was made in IPL cricket, Big Bash cricket and performing and excelling in that. He came into Test cricket already with a reputation on a standard of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad. People were matching him with Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc. These guys have played a lot of Test cricket, very experienced.
“For him it’s about managing where he is in his career and for us as a management group understanding that he’s very young and every game he’ll pick things up. He’s a very fast learner – he showed that in white-ball cricket – and we have to give him that opportunity in Test cricket as well.”
But even then, Root suggested Archer needed to be bowling not just well, but quickly, too.
“Of course, if he’s fit and raring to go you want him in your side,” Root said. “But you want to make sure he’s 100 percent ready and he can deliver all his skills: not just seam and swing it around but bowl at 90mph too. We’ve got to look after him as a player as well as just trying to win the series.”
The very best – the likes of Malcolm Marshall and Richard Hadlee – did not bowl flat out all the time. Far from it. They used their pace as one of the skills in their armoury and unleashed it when required.
Perhaps Archer is still learning when it is required. Perhaps there is something to be said for him warming up better and bowling quicker at the start of spells rather than easing into them. But his Test-best performance to date – 6 for 45 at Leeds – came when he concentrated on control and movement and rarely operated at anything approaching the pace seen for a while in the previous Test at Lord’s. And his quickest spells – notably against Steve Smith at Lord’s and Matt Wade at The Oval – didn’t necessarily produce many wickets. The point being, Archer is about far more than pace. He’s much better than that.
Perhaps he is having something of a tricky second album phase to his career. Perhaps he is struggling with the Kookaburra ball and a series of surfaces – in New Zealand, in particular – that might have been designed to thwart him. Perhaps, as Root says, his body is simply pushing back after being asked to do a bit much.
But he’s doing very well, really. Extraordinarily well, by comparison to England’s other seam-bowling newbies in recent times. Craig Overton (averaging 44.77), for example, Jake Ball (114.33) or Tom Curran (100.00).
Archer is missing this Test due to an elbow injury. It happens. He’ll be back. And in him England have something quite special. He deserves appreciating and looking after.
Ajaz Patel’s return signals an overhaul in New Zealand’s spin plans
The big news in the New Zealand Test squad, apart from the post-injury comeback for Trent Boult, was the return to the arena for 31-year-old left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel in place of Mitchell Santner. It’s a good change, as far as former batting coach Craig McMillan is concerned, because Patel “can pick up four or five wickets in a Test match”. As for Patel, he is just excited at the prospect of facing off against “some of the best in the world”.
“Mitchell Santner, over a period of time, has done a holding role for New Zealand. And that’s down quite often to the conditions in New Zealand that aren’t really conducive to have the ball turning much. It’s the seamers who do all the damage and take most of the wickets,” McMillan, who finished up with the team after the 2019 50-over World Cup, told Radio Sport.
Gary Stead, the New Zealand head coach, had welcomed Patel’s inclusion when the squad was announced, saying, “It’s a slight change in role we’re looking in terms of that position being one where we can take wickets and focus hard on that.”
McMillan liked what he heard from Stead: “It’s good to hear, because Ajaz Patel is better than being just a holding spinner. He’s got over 230 first-class wickets [235 in 62 matches], so he knows how to bowl in New Zealand. So I hope they use him in an attacking role. They need to have a spinner who can pick up four or five wickets in a Test match. And Ajaz Patel is certainly a guy who could do that. So I thought it was encouraging to hear, and it will be interesting to see how they use him, because that’s one of the keys, when you have spinners in your side, it’s the time to use them and how to use them.
“I feel my game’s pretty adaptable. So I’m going to just see what the conditions are and what the scenario and situation is and try to play to that”
“I hope they give him the opportunity to continue bowling how he does at the domestic level at the international level, because I think he can do a really good job, pick up wickets and be really useful in that New Zealand Test side.”
Patel has played only seven Test matches since his debut in 2018, five of them in Asian conditions and only two in New Zealand, where the stress has been on pace with Santner trying to keep things tight without really being much of an attacking option. In the last 12 months, Santner has played one Test in Sri Lanka, two at home against England, and two in Australia, and picked up only five wickets in those games at an average of 96.80. The other spinners in the mix have been Todd Astle, who has since retired from red-ball cricket, and Will Somerville, who both played the New Year’s Test in Sydney on the back of an illness crisis in the squad.
Back in the scheme of things now, Patel is looking forward to going up against Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and the rest of the mighty India batting line-up.
“It’s a fantastic challenge. I suppose as a spinner, testing yourself against some of the best players in the world, it’s a great challenge and it’s something that you should, really, enjoy and cherish,” he said. “At the end of the day, I suppose, at some point in my career, I want to be known as the best in the world. So to be able to challenge some of the best in the world, it’s a great opportunity and a challenge, something that I look forward to.”
Whether he gets that chance or not depends on the Basin Reserve pitch. If it’s green, as McMillan pointed out, “perhaps playing a fourth seamer, which means Kyle Jamieson might get a run”.
Patel understands that. “I suppose it depends on the surface and the scenarios of the game,” he said of the role he expects to play. “Either way, I am going to try and contribute in any way that I can, whether it be with the ball, with the bat, in the field. If it requires me to try and take wickets, then I’m going to try to do that, if it requires me to try and restrict runs, then I’ll try and do that. I feel my game’s pretty adaptable. So I’m going to just see what the conditions are and what the scenario and situation is and try to play to that.
“The Basin could be quite interesting, I suppose. It depends on what kind of day it is and what kind of week you get. If you get a nice, sunny week, the wicket dries up pretty quickly. Although if there’s a bit of overcast conditions, that can be a bit different as well. And obviously you have the wind factor. There’s a lot of things you’ve got to think about at the Basin, but once again, it’s kind of adapting your game to whatever presents itself, and that’s probably one of the great things about Test cricket. You get different challenges thrown at you and you have to learn to adapt.”
What could have gone against Santner, apart from just his own moderate returns, was the fact that even as he picked up just one wicket in two Tests on the December 2019 tour of Australia, Nathan Lyon topped the wicket-takers’ chart with 20 wickets in three Tests, all of which Australia won.
Did that show up Santner, as well as New Zealand’s use with their frontline spinner? “I think it did in many ways,” McMillan agreed. “[Santner’s numbers] sort of stands out in itself, because his core role in the side is to pick up wickets as a spinner, not as a batsman. And he was getting picked in the side to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. And New Zealand, with the bowling line-up they’ve got, need a spinner who can contribute four or five wickets a Test match, which just takes some pressure off the likes of [Tim] Southee, [Neil] Wagner and Boult.”
Dimitri Mascarenhas signs two-year deal with Middlesex as T20 bowling coach
Dimitri Mascarenhas has signed a two-year deal to stay on as Middlesex’s specialist T20 bowling coach.
Mascarenhas, whose arrival at the county last summer coincided with an upturn in results in short-form cricket, has held several coaching roles since his retirement from the game in 2014, including stints with New Zealand, Otago, Melbourne Renegades and Otago.
He will also be an assistant coach to Shane Warne in the Hundred next season, staying at Lord’s alongside Eoin Morgan following the Blast to work with London Spirit.
“Dimi’s laid back, calm persona is a great asset and his coaching style reflects this trait,” said Stuart Law, Middlesex’s director of cricket.
“He has simple methods that resonate well with the boys and allows the players to grow, while guiding them through. We’re really looking forward to working with Dimi again during the T20 Blast campaign this season.”
Middlesex reached the knock-out stages of the Blast for only the second time since winning the competition in 2008 last season, with their five-man bowling attack coming to the fore.
Mujeeb Ur Rahman has signed to return as an overseas player, while the Cricketer magazine has reported that Law hopes to sign an allrounder alongside him, with Mitchell Marsh one possible target. AB de Villiers is unlikely to return, with the Blast directly following the IPL season and workload management a concern ahead of a potential international comeback in time for the T20 World Cup.
“I loved my time last year and felt we made some progress on the bowling front and as a team,” said Mascarenhas. “The opportunity to work with Stu Law and Nic Pothas, two international-level coaches, is extremely exciting and brilliant for my development.
“The squad is very similar to last season and I’m sure we can make a huge play for the finals again. I can’t wait to join up with the squad and continue what we started last year.”
Michael Hussey hopes to keep Australia mentoring role through to T20 World Cup
Michael Hussey is hopeful that his stint with Australia’s T20 team will continue throughout their preparation for the World Cup in October, and into the tournament itself.
Justin Langer has made a point of using former players as backroom staff, often bringing them in for a series at a time on an informal basis. Hussey linked up with the squad ahead of their T20I series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan in the home summer, and has travelled to South Africa with them in a flexible role.
“I’m hoping to stay involve with the T20 team leading up to and through the World Cup,” Hussey said. “It’s a fantastic environment. I really like the guys: they work so hard, and there’s a lot of excitement around the team with that T20 World Cup on our own doorstep and not too far away.
“They’re really focused and driven to do well, and motivated to try and put in good performances to be in that squad and have a chance of winning the World Cup.
“I’m not exactly sure what [my] title is, whether it’s mentor, batting coach, or whatever. But I don’t really mind, I just want to get in there and help out however I can, and throw a lot of balls, I guess.”
Hussey filled a similar role at the last T20 World Cup, where he was hired as a consultant, and his short-form coaching experience also includes the batting coach job at Chennai Super Kings as well as a role as director of cricket at Sydney Thunder.
Australia have placed a greater focus on role clarity among their batsmen in the current cycle of T20I cricket, after their 2016 World T20 campaign turned into something of a debacle. With a coterie of top-order batsmen in their squad, David Warner was used at No. 3 or 4, and Shane Watson shifted down from opener to finisher three matches into the tournament.
“I’m rapt that [Matthew Wade] has got an opportunity and I really hope he can cement his place in that middle order, because he’s playing brilliantly well at the moment”
But partly thanks to Alex Carey‘s emergence, this year looks to be different, with Warner, Aaron Finch and Steven Smith emerging as the first-choice top three and Carey, Glenn Maxwell and one other batsman likely to form No. 4-6. Maxwell’s injury means there will likely be opportunities for Matthew Wade and Mitchell Marsh in the middle order, with the No. 7 spot filled by a bowling allrounder – either Ashton Agar or Sean Abbott.
Wade has been used exclusively as an opener in recent years by the Hobart Hurricanes, but is seen as a versatile option, not least with his ability as a back-up wicketkeeper. He has a good record against spin (139.2 strike rate, 76.00 average) over the last two Big Bash seasons, and Hussey backed him to make the most of his middle-order opportunity.
“I’ve been more focusing on the middle-order guys,” said Hussey, who spent 21 of his 30 T20I innings batting between No. 4 and No. 7 and played one of the great innings by a finisher in the semi-final of the 2010 World T20.
“I played with Matty Wade, but I really like the place he’s in at the moment with his game – he has a great understanding of his game now, and he also has perspective on life and the game as well. It’s not the be-all and end-all, although it’s still very important to him.
“So I’m rapt that he’s got an opportunity and I really hope he can take his opportunity and cement his place in that middle order, because he’s playing brilliantly well at the moment. I get on well with all the guys – Alex Carey, and Mitch Marsh [who] I obviously know quite well from WA.”
Conditions in South Africa are likely to be alien, with the series starting at altitude in Johannesburg on Friday night, but Hussey said that Australia should be able to adapt. He also suggested that in the World Cup, Australia hold something of an edge due to their knowledge of local conditions, and the side’s ability to manipulate ground dimensions to their advantage.
“The boys were a bit tired from yesterday’s session, just getting used to the altitude. It’s obviously something we don’t have to contend with back in Australia. It is different, and for a number of guys it’s their first time here, so it’s a great experience for them.
“You’ve got to try and adapt, and there might be different ways to score your 10 or 12 runs an over. It’s certainly a focus in our team, the running between the wickets, and that’s something this team really prides themselves on, particularly Davey and Steven Smith, Glenn Maxwell when he’s playing – they’re brilliant runners between the wicket.
“I think there’s a balance, certainly with the big grounds – it’s not easy to just stand there and smash it out of the park. Without doubt, I think it’s certainly going to be a point of difference. But I don’t want to give away too many secrets leading into the World Cup.”
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