It’s a sign of the strange times that we live in, that two fast bowlers whose records and reputations precede them in India are only right now playing in their first Test match in the country – and on opposing teams as well.
The Indian Premier League may be the stage on which both men have honed their crafts, but in their contrasting but complementary styles, first Jasprit Bumrah and now Jofra Archer have demonstrated an abiding truth about high-class fast bowling. It transcends time, place, formats and conditions – and it remains the most compelling factor in the game. Pace is pace, no matter where and how you use it, and pace with skill can be unplayable.
Bumrah’s efforts ended up being rather buried beneath the mountains of runs that England piled up over the first two-and-a-bit days of this match. However, his ability to take the pitch out of the equation, unmatched in the contemporary game, was showcased by his three lbws on each day of the match – full, fast, inswinging and startling, as well as by arguably the single best ball of the match so far, a sensational late-dipping yorker that should by rights have unseated Ben Stokes before his vital 82 had got underway.
On the third day, on the other hand, Archer’s efforts were front and centre of England’s surge into the ascendancy, and what’s more, they seized on the exact opposite approach to Bumrah, not to mention the exact same methods that earned him the accolade of MVP at the last IPL that finished in November. Aggression to the fore, accuracy unwavering, and most importantly for England’s burgeoning hopes in this campaign, a determination not only to embrace the uncompromising nature of the wicket, but to factor it actively into his methods.
To be fair to England’s planning for this series, he’s hardly been alone in that. For the third match running, a different England new-ball bowler has nailed his methods in his first spell of the winter – but whereas Stuart Broad and James Anderson, in consecutive Tests against Sri Lanka, created their opportunities through relentless dot-ball pressure, Archer was more content to duke it out in his favourite T20 fashion, relishing the cut and thrust of the encounter, and encouraging errors through the batsman’s adrenaline as much as his own.
Archer’s first five-over burst went for 25 runs but yielded two priceless wickets – Rohit Sharma scalped by a fast cutter that kicked off the deck as if was a Dukes ball in May, before kissing the edge through to the keeper. The other was burgled with pure IPL trickery, as Archer ripped his fingers down the side of the ball, luring a pumped-up Shubman Gill into a fatefully early push through the line to a diving Anderson at mid-on.
From the outset, Archer’s blood was pumping, to a more visible degree than had ever been the case during his undeniably subdued performances during England’s summer series – epitomised by his comments during the Old Trafford Test against Pakistan, when he claimed that the wicket was not one on which to “bend your back”.
It’s arguable that Archer’s point in that contest was misconstrued – it certainly seems that way after witnessing the ferocity of his approach both here and at the IPL – given that English conditions, even flatter pitches, tend to offer just enough assistance to reward the virtues of conventional line and length. Without ever slipping the handbrake in that Old Trafford game, he still contributed four wickets at 21.5 to England’s series-deciding win. And in the long term, if Archer can develop the versatility to thrive without going full throttle, he’ll be all the better set for a long and fruitful Test career, in all conditions.
In the early years of the IPL, it was regularly stated that the best Test players were equipped to thrive in T20 cricket, but not vice versa – and for a time this was true, because the longer game still rewarded the sort of technical discipline for which white-ball cricket (as it wasn’t then called) was liable to cut corners. Test cricket is where you “build the brand”, as Kevin Pietersen infamously put it at the height of his stand-off with the ECB.
But that attitude is palpably wrongheaded now – a decade has passed since David Warner broke the mould, and India have just ended Australia’s three-decade-long unbeaten run at the Gabba with a victory that was siphoned directly from the vim and optimism of regular T20 combat. And, as Archer showed in bucking every conceivable fast-bowling trend at the latest IPL, he has more than a few skills to be transferred in either direction.
All told, Archer claimed 20 wickets at 18.25 in Rajasthan Royals’ campaign, but half of those came with the new ball in his Powerplay overs, at a stunning economy rate of 4.34 that was a testament, as much as anything, to his sheer unplayability. It was widely noted at the time, in fact, that he was adapting a Test-match attitude to his white-ball game, consistently targeting the top of off with judicious use of the bouncer – a weapon so ferocious, even in the UAE, that it actually improved his economy rate (to a remarkable 3.54) – while keeping even his more confident opponents guessing with his cunning armoury of cutters and knuckle-balls.
And so it showed today, in a thrilling but short-lived joust with India’s openers. Over the course of the past three IPLs, Gill and Sharma had faced 18 balls from Archer, with a palpable lack of success. Each had been dismissed twice, for a grand total of 11 runs, and Sharma’s head-to-head on home soil is now particularly bleak – he had been dismissed by two of the first four balls that Archer had bowled to him in India, and he made it three out of eight in total today, as he flinched at a perfect pacey cutter, one ball after flicking a rare loose ball off his toes.
As for Gill, there can’t have been many more scintillating sub-30 innings in recent Test history, as he too showed how transferable his short-form skills can be, not least against one of England’s established Test masters – his checked on-drive for four off Anderson was nothing less than a come-and-get-me plea from his as-yet unsponsored bat. But for India’s purposes, it proved too short and sweet. A blend of methods might yet be required in the second innings, if India are to back up their Australia heroics with another extraordinary turnaround in this contest.