Two days out from a Test match that England cannot afford to lose, a metaphorical passing of the baton took place on the Lord’s outfield. James Anderson, the captor of 103 Test wickets at 23.89 on this hallowed ground, walked almost unnoticed past a press huddle beneath the Media Centre, where the new Lord of Lord’s was sheepishly holding forth on the Test debut that he has still yet to make.
For the second time this season – or even the third, if you take his ODI and World Cup debuts as incremental step-ups in expectation – Jofra Archer is braced to make another Rumsfeldian leap into the known unknown.
His methods, his mien, have been so scrutinised and mined for so long, it is once again all too easy to overlook the truth of his situation. Archer is not the messiah, he is a 24-year-old international rookie whose evisceration of Gloucestershire twos at Blackstone last week can’t entirely disguise the fact that he has not played first-class cricket for 11 months and counting.
“I’ve got to make my debut first. If selected, I’ll probably be over the moon,” Archer said, with typical deadpan accuracy, when quizzed on his readiness for action. “I don’t know how to feel as yet.”
But when you’ve won a World Cup at the first time of asking, and done it the hard way too, by claiming 20 wickets at 23.05 before withstanding unconscionable pressure to close out the decisive Super Over in the most emotionally fraught sporting finale of all time, ordinary expectations no longer apply. If General Melchett were presiding over the tactics for the coming week, he’d be granting permission to get really rather carried away.
No pressure then, Jofra. It’s only England’s 18 years of home Ashes hegemony at stake.
“What I would say is don’t expect any miracles firstly,” Archer said. “I can’t work miracles – I’ll try to, but I don’t think that’s how it might pan out. I’ll try my best and I can only give my best.”
Nice try, but it’s not going to wash. Archer’s challenge in the coming days is not to play down the expectation, but to reframe it to manageable proportions.
For Australia, certainly, are ready and waiting. Justin Langer, their coach, has declared himself “really curious” to see how Archer goes, speaking in bullish tones of getting him into his “second, third and fourth spells” and testing his physical endurance in the wake of a much-reported side strain that left him in “excruciating” pain at the latter end of his white-ball stint (but which, he now reports, is “never better” after a week’s R&R in Barbados).
And yet, not for the first time this summer, Archer has exuded a sense of belonging ahead of his grand unveiling, and one that belies his softly spoken responses.
Part of that, you sense, stems from his obvious delight in doing what he does for a living. After all, it is not for nothing that Archer’s “Jofradamus” reputation precedes him in the media – his litany of archival tweets wouldn’t be capable of “predicting” each and every event in this summer’s itinerary were it not for the fact that he has clearly been emotionally invested in the rhythms of his sport for years.
And as a consequence, he may not be able to tell you yet how he will feel to walk through the Long Room in his whites to open the bowling in a Lord’s Ashes Test, but you can be surer than most debutants that he’ll have an idea of what to do when he gets there.
“I’m probably more ready than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I’ve bowled 50 overs in one game already for Sussex [on his Championship debut against Essex in August 2016] and I’m usually the one bowling the most overs anyway. I think Justin Langer has another thing coming.”
And therein lies an under-appreciated truth about the groundwork to Archer’s career. For all that he has made his mark globally with his pace and variety in 24-ball outings on the global T20 circuit, it was his red-ball education for Sussex that earned him those opportunities in the first place. And for all that his three first-class seasons at Hove pale in the public imagination compared to his subsequent white-ball exploits, a haul of 131 wickets at 23.44 is not an insubstantial body of work.
“I’ve played a lot more red-ball than I have white-ball. I do think it’s my preferred format anyway,” he said. “Test cricket is pretty much almost the same as first-class. You know what you’ve got to do, you know what your strengths are. Especially to stick with them.
“Red-ball isn’t really shown on TV so a lot of people won’t know, and looking at the scorecard, it doesn’t really tell the full story of how a game panned out anyway. But it was actually the first format I played in when I started at Sussex. It was a bit hard to get into the white-ball team, I think I played the second half of the red-ball season and only two white-ball games.”
As for the Lord’s factor – such a significant aspect for your average aspirational debutant – well, without being glib about such things, it’s safe to presume that the old ground will harbour nothing but happy memories following that unforgettable last visit in the World Cup final, if not serve up anything approaching such all-or-nothing jeopardy over the coming five days, no matter how many times he is sent back to the well by an insuperable Steve Smith.
“It was a really, really good day,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing most of the guys that were in the Test team were part of it as well, so I don’t think I’m the only person that will feel that way. But when I came in today it looked a bit different. All the World Cup boards were down. It just looked normal again. It’s a good ground to come back to and hopefully we can keep up our winning ways here.”
Those winning ways, incidentally, don’t quite extend to his only visit here for Sussex in red-ball cricket – but on a personal level he is exonerated for their 55-run defeat against Middlesex in August 2018. With eight wickets in the match, including 5 for 69 in the second innings, he not only carried his side close, but made a strong early acquaintance with the infamous Lord’s slope.
“I think the slope did have a hand in some of the dismissals,” he said. “If one nips down the slope it’s a good ball, if it doesn’t nip down the slope it’s still a good ball. The margin of error sometimes can be a lot bigger than at most other grounds.”
Whether that might help him to formulate a specific plan against Smith, however, remains to be seen.
“I think my ideas will be the same as the guys, it’s just that the guys haven’t been successful. He played really well at Edgbaston, I think he had a day out – or days out – but Lord’s is a bit different to Edgbaston. Hopefully one can do a bit more coming down the slope and hopefully he gets out for 90 runs less.”