There was a revealing moment as Jofra Archer walked off the pitch having just completed the first five-wicket haul of his Test career.
Thrown the ball by team-mates who recognised the significance of the occasion – there will, no doubt be more five-wicket hauls, but there will never be another first – Archer did not, initially, at least, raise it to soak up the applause of the crowd. Instead, he continued to rub it on his trousers; still looking for the shine that might help him gain some swing.
It was a moment reminiscent, perhaps, of the way in which Jonathan Trott, at his best, would sometimes mark his guard even after he had guided his side to a victory in a match. For these are men so locked in their craft, so consumed by their profession, that it becomes instinctive to work on it even when the immediate targets have been hit.
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That craft was evident in Archer here. After showing the fire and brimstone side to his game at Lord’s, where he achieved a pace of 96mph and displayed that wonderfully unpleasant bouncer, here Archer reasoned that conditions called for different skills. So instead of looking to make the batsmen jump and parry, he sought to draw them onto the front foot and exploit conditions which saw the ball move sharply through much of the day.
That is a remarkably mature approach for a young man playing just his second Test. Many of this crowd would have longed to see him unleash the sort of deliveries that had Lord’s on the edge of their seats last week and many of them roared him in at the start of the day. So despite claiming one wicket – Marcus Harris caught behind of an almost perfect delivery that demanded a stroke and moved fractionally to kiss the edge – in his opening spell, there was a slight sense of anti-climax as it finished. This had been a demonstration of subtlety, skill and control. And when you’re dressed as Elvis, a banana, or a monk – and that accounts for a fair few in the Headingley crowd on Thursday – subtlety can get a bit lost.
But this was exactly the approach taken by the likes of Malcolm Marshall or Richard Hadlee in such conditions. And Archer’s ability to nip the ball both ways, using both seam and swing, while maintaining that full length that allowed the ball the chance to swing and demanded a stroke from the batsmen. After producing a hostile performance at Lord’s that would have made Mitchell Johnson proud, he produced a skilful performance here that would have done the same for James Anderson. To be capable of both approaches is immensely encouraging for England.
“I don’t need to run in and bowl 90mph every spell to get wickets,” Archer said afterwards. “I’ve shown that today. There will be times in Test matches you have to focus on hitting your length. There will be times to ramp it up as well but you don’t have to go into it every innings.
“This wasn’t a wicket where you had to run in and bowl 90mph. It was a bit softer on top; there was a bit of swing and nip. If you put it in the right areas you should get wickets.”
That’s not to say Archer did not display sharp pace here. By the time he was recalled to the attack for his second spell, Australia were 124-2 and England were in real danger. In these conditions, that was a fine score. The support bowlers had failed to maintain the control of the openers and, at one stage, 88 runs had been leaked from 14 overs. The thought remains that, had they all bowled tighter, Australia may have struggled to score many more than 100 in such conditions. England may yet struggle in reply.
As a result, Archer appeared to go up a gear. Having beaten David Warner with an 88mph delivery that nipped past his outside edge, the next ball – timed at a fraction under 90 mph – demanded a stroke and again took the edge on its way to the keeper. The word ‘unplayable’ is overused, but the best most batsmen could hope to do with such a delivery was miss it. The wicket precipitated a sharp decline which saw Australia lose eight wickets for 43. Coincidentally, 8 for 43 were the figures Bob Willis took here in that famous game in 1981. Archer’s haul of 6-45 was the best by an England bowler in the Ashes at Headingley since.
Later, Warner compared him to Dale Steyn – in terms of his skills and his ability to up his pace as required – and Jasprit Bumrah – in terms of the difficulty in picking up his lengths from his action. Look at the names mentioned in this article so far: Marshall; Hadlee; Steyn; Bumrah. These are some of the best there have ever been. England have something very special here.
“It was incredible Test bowling,” Warner said of Archer and Broad’s opening spells. “It was world-class bowling at its best. They bowled unbelievably well and a play and miss became a good shot.”
Is this praise premature? Well, we’ll see. But Archer really does appear to have the armoury – the control, the pace, the skills and the robust body – to suggest he can sustain the bright start to his career. Indeed, when his captain eventually realises that he is the man who should be running in down the hill, and he is the man who should bowl in shorter spells, it’s possible his figures could even improve. He bowled at the wrong end for much of this innings and conceded runs as a result of the unusually attacking fields.
The one cloud on his horizon is his workload. Already, he has delivered 61.1 overs in this series and this was just the third innings in which he has bowled. By contrast, Broad has delivered fewer than 50 overs in the same timeframe. Overall, England have delivered 194.1 overs since Archer came into the Test side, meaning he has bowled almost a third of them. That is not sustainable.
So while it is understandable that Joe Root turns to him in every situation – the Ashes are on the line here, after all – it has to change. While he’s shown he is far more than a tearaway with a magnificent bouncer, that top register of pace remains a significant weapon. Even in this innings, he produced the odd sharp bouncer which would have had batsmen just a little reluctant to prop onto the front foot. England need to help him retain that pace. Johnson, at his best, rarely bowled spells of longer than three or four overs.
It was that weariness that was most apparent straight after the game. Asked by the BBC how he felt about that first five-for, his instinctive response was to reply: “It means I get to rest now. I’m over the moon to have got six wickets today, but I’m equally happy just to get off.”
That sustains a familiar theme. Following the Lord’s Test, Archer tweeted a picture of an old man struggling to raise himself from a chair with a stick for help and wrote: “Me getting out of bed tomorrow morning.”
It was a joke, of course, but it was also a warning. Bowlers like Archer come along, for England at least, very rarely. He’s already helped England to a World Cup and he might just have got them back in an Ashes series. He needs looking after. He needs protecting. We’re only at the start of Archer’s international journey, but already he has shown an array of skills that whisper the potential of greatness.