Asche 2023: After 22 months on the international sidelines, Jofra Archer is back

England fast bowler Jofra Archer is aiming to repeat his 2019 exploits as he returns to international action after a 22-month absence, writes JOHN WESTERBY

In the middle he moves into the bowl with the same rhythmic ease, the pace he generates far exceeding the apparent effort expended. Off the field, when he sits down after practice, the gold necklace and stud earrings are still glistening, and he speaks with the same shy smile.

After 22 months on the international touchline, this is the unmistakable sight of Jofra Archer, back in an England shirt and ready to return to international cricket tomorrow in the first of a three-match, one-day series against South Africa here in Bloemfontein.

In this series and beyond, the question that will plague English cricket this year as it makes its way back to full fitness after such a long absence is whether this version of Archer, despite all the excitement his return is creating, the strength he was before those elbow and back injuries put an end to his burgeoning international career.

Will he be the same bowler who burst into national consciousness in 2019, played a central role in England’s World Cup win on home soil and then 22 wickets in four Tests – his first four Test games, lest we forget – in the Ashes series fetched? that followed? And if it even approaches those rare heights, will such achievements be sustainable over the longer term?

Asked yesterday if he feels like the same bowler having recently played five short form games in SA20 competition, the 27-year-old’s answer was simple. “Don’t know,” he shrugged. “It was just good to be able to play cricket and not have to worry about my body giving out. I think that’s the most important thing for me so far.”

The important things first. After his return to T20 cricket, this week’s 50-over matches will be another step in the public test of his durability. Test cricket will be another matter entirely and the Ashes series, which starts in mid-June, can only be a smudge on the horizon in terms of Archer’s fitness, even as the man himself remains steadfast in proving his toughness so he may renew hostilities with Australia.

Defending England’s 50-over world titles in India in October and November is still a long way off, but Archer needed long-term goals to keep his motivation on his way back onto the international stage. “Hopefully it can be a repeat of 2019,” he said. “We’re having a 50-over World Championship and an Ashes in the same year again, so more of that please.”

His captain here, Jos Buttler, has joined England Test captain Ben Stokes in trying to get him back in the group, assuring him he is not expected to set the world on fire in the early stages of his return.

Archer, who turns 28 in April, is not fooled. “[Stokes] said there’s no expectation, Jos too,” he said. “It’s nice to hear that, but people will have expectations anyway.”

He felt those expectations as he played the first of five games for MI Cape Town in SA20 competition earlier this month. His first over was a wicket maid that put Wihan Lubbe into a pull to mid-on with his third ball and then delivered three point balls to Jason Roy.

“I haven’t played for so long, I think everyone was watching, and I felt like whatever happened, I probably would have been judged,” he said. “I’m glad I got to the good end.”

And will he feel a similar awareness from the audience on his international comeback? He nods. “Yes, that’s how sports work. If I don’t do well at the game, a lot of people will watch. I’ll be judged again and no one will remember the good things I’ve done. You’re only as good as your last game.”

In those five appearances for Cape Town, Archer figured he was operating at “probably about 80 percent” of his capacity, despite hitting speeds of 92.4 mph. He generally appeared to be enjoying himself, taking eight wickets from 19 overs in the five games while taking over the celebration from Manchester United star Marcus Rashford – who pointed to his temple. “I don’t know what that means,” Archer said. “But I saw him doing it and he’s a pretty crazy guy.”

Crucially, with every passing play, he’s getting farther from that achingly long period of inactivity, which hit its nadir when he suffered the stress fracture just before returning from his elbow injury in May last year that ruled him out for the remainder of the 2022 season.

Spending most of his time away from the game at home in Barbados, he overcame the disappointment, he said, with the help of friends and family and by adding six dogs to his household: Sheba, a French mastiff he’s had since he was 16 and five American Tyrants, Ace, Onyx, Ghost, Nova, and Luna.

“A month after I came back to Barbados I went a little crazy, I got like five dogs in four weeks,” he said. “Just the routine kept me going, shoveling a lot of poop and feeding a lot of dogs. It’s her house, I just live there.”

The worst part of his absence came while watching England play in the T20 World Cup in Australia late last year. “I was yelling at the TV,” he said. “The hardest thing about watching is not being able to help. You don’t even have to play, just be there to help. I almost bought a ticket to Australia.”

Now he’s hoping to string together enough injury-free performances to bring that vision of playing Australia in the Ashes into sharper focus with an England Test team so spectacularly revived under Stokes and Brendan McCullum, the head coach. He knows his workload will be carefully managed by England to give him every chance of outfitting Stokes with another 90mph+ weapon in his attack, perhaps alternating with Mark Wood and Olly Stone.

“You can’t play every game, so manage it by playing maybe two games, then one, as the medical team sees fit,” he said.

“Maybe I’ll have to play some extra bowling during the week in India [to build his stamina during the IPL], but that’s absolutely fine because I want to play in the cinders, so I have to do the hard yards. But I don’t want to look too far ahead. I just want to make a difference in every game I play.”

-The times

Originally published as After 22 months on the international sidelines, Jofra Archer is back Asche 2023: After 22 months on the international sidelines, Jofra Archer is back

Ryan Sederquist

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