Jofra Archer only made his England debut in May but he's already a World Cup winner and Ashes hero. The fast bowler talks to Robert Crampton about racism, moving from Barbados to Sussex – and the ball that felled the Australian captain and announced Archer's arrival on the global stage
Just as Australian cricket heroes are supposed to be larrikins like Shane Warne, and English cricket heroes are lion-hearted yeomen summoned from the fields of Agincourt like Ian Botham, cricketers of Caribbean origin tend to be described as languid. While also being possessed of supreme natural athletic ability. It's a cliché, and like all clichés, it contains some truth. Sure enough, on meeting him last week in the Long Room at the Sussex county ground in Hove, Jofra Archer comes across as a chilled, relaxed, laid-back kinda guy. When I put it to him he has a pretty peachy life, knocking around the world being paid to play a game, he chuckles and says, "Yeah, it is kinda nice."
Yet English sport's summer sensation is also, I conclude after an hour or so in his company, a serious, disciplined and ambitious young man, thoughtful beyond his 24 years. Loose-limbed, physically blessed and softly spoken he may be, but he is also smart, driven and hard-working. A normally complex human being, in other words. I make the point because, if I were a successful black athlete, I'd get fed up constantly being told I was naturally gifted, as if I hadn't had to make the sacrifices to exploit my gifts, as my white team-mates and rivals had done.
There's a steeliness about the young man sitting across the table. All fast bowlers need that quality. The fourth Test of this Ashes series is now under way. In the second instalment, at Lord's three weeks ago, having missed the first game, Archer made his Test debut for England, announcing his arrival by flooring Australia's talisman, Steve Smith, with a 92mph delivery to the neck. Smith – previously more or less impregnable and averaging well over 100 runs in his three innings to that point – missed the subsequent third Test at Headingley a fortnight ago, which England duly won, thanks in large part to Ben Stokes, but also to Archer, who took eight wickets in the match.
I put it to him that some observers are now saying short-pitched bowling of the kind he employed against Smith should be banned. He greets the news with amazement. "Banned? Eh? For what?" Because it hurts people, I say. (And once in a while, as in the tragic case of the Australian batsman Phil Hughes in 2014, occasionally kills people, too.) "Twenty or thirty years ago, no one even had helmets," he says, sounding confused. "I don't think those people watched cricket then."
That's the point, I say. Thanks to his star quality (and, let's be honest, extreme good looks – the photographer said it was as easy as snapping a model), people who haven't previously watched cricket are tuning in to the game. When they do (I'm thinking of my wife and several female friends and colleagues), they are surprised, not to say repelled, by the way fast bowlers are allowed, not to say encouraged, to hit batsmen on the body. "I don't know what to say to that," he shrugs.
Obviously, he isn't trying to hurt anyone? "Absolutely not," he agrees, before adding, "The first ball I faced in international [Test] cricket was a short ball. Actually, the first ten balls were short. That's the standard Australia sets." He considers the adequacy of this answer, and says, "I don't mean to hit people. I hit them because it's well directed. I was doing it in Barbados all the time. It comes natural."
When batting, has he been hit himself? "Yeah, I've been hit on the helmet a few times. If you play professional cricket, you get hit. Barbados prepared me well. It's nothing you're not accustomed to, bowling them or facing them. We also believe that, when you get hit, you don't show that it hurts. You crack on. When the day is over, you lick your wounds."
The first ball I faced in a Test was a short ball. You play cricket, you get hit.
When he hit Smith and Smith fell over in pain and distress, what did he, as the bowler, feel? "I felt bad," he says. "Steve Smith was in my IPL team [the Indian Premier League, where players are auctioned to a Twenty20 side irrespective of nationality] this year." Is Smith a friend? "Yeah, we were in India for three months; the overseas players stick together."
Did he contact him afterwards? Send a text? "No, because we're in the middle of the Ashes. When it's finished I will. When it's done, we'll probably laugh about it. If I see him I'll ask, 'Are you all right?' Everyone knows we're in a series – we need to keep it sharp."
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Archer then reveals that he did stop by the Australian dressing room at Lord's after the close of play on the day he floored Smith. "He wasn't there; he'd gone to get scanned. I just spoke to the physio."
Byword for gentlemanly good manners it may be, but the truth is, it's a tough old game, cricket. As Phil Tufnell, England bowler turned King of the Jungle turned Test Match Special commentator, is fond of pointing out, the ball is exceptionally hard. Which you discover when it whacks into you at 90-plus mph. During his spell against Smith at Lord's, Archer got up to 96mph. His average speed for one over was the fastest ever unleashed by an England bowler. His pace is all the more threatening because it is generated off a deceptively languid (that word again, but it damn sure doesn't feel languid when the ball whizzes past, or into, your nose), 13-step run-up.
Eclipsed temporarily by Ben Stokes's feats, it is hard to overstate the impact of Archer's advent on the international scene in England colours. His debut was, as my colleague Mike Atherton has written, the most keenly awaited since that of Kevin Pietersen in 2005. Like Pietersen, Archer did not disappoint. Quite the opposite. His performances thus far herald the arrival of potential genius. A potential that Pietersen largely fulfilled. And like Pietersen, Archer's very presence in the national side provoked controversy.
Pietersen was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, to an English mother and an Afrikaaner father. Archer was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, to a Barbadian mum and an English dad. When their birth countries failed to recognise their talent, both men elected to take advantage of their dual citizenship by throwing in their lot with the former imperial power. Money also played a part. West Indian cricketers are not well remunerated. By contrast, an England cricketer with a central contract and an IPL deal can expect to earn upwards of one million quid a season. Do the math.
Several Barbadian-born cricketers have represented England: Roland Butcher, Gladstone Small and Archer's great mate, mentor and neighbour in Hove, Chris Jordan, played 28 Tests between them. Barring a calamitous injury, their young compatriot will easily surpass their combined total of caps. Double it. Quadruple it, if he enjoys the lengthy career he envisages. "I want to play as long as I can," he says.
Let's hope he will. There really isn't anything to complain about. Of the 11 players at Headingley, 2 beside Archer were born overseas. Jason Roy began life in Durban. Ben Stokes, apparently the quintessential English everyman, heir to Beefy Botham, was born in New Zealand. Andrew Strauss, former captain and England Cricket Board director of cricket, hails from Johannesburg. So what if Archer was raised in Bridgetown, a place he still calls home? More fool the Windies if they neglected his ability. Would he have preferred to play for the West Indies? "Um … Yeah, obviously … But I think everything happens for a reason and it probably wasn't my path to take."
In a shop, this guy said, 'Oh, these bloody people, coming to my country'.
Fair play to England cricket fans: they adopted "Sir Jofra" as one of their own more or less instantly. Informed sources tell me there are no murmurs of discontent emanating from the old buffers' enclosure. As for the cheaper seats, every time his captain throws him the ball, or he comes out to bat, or merely assumes his duties as a fielder, he is greeted with raucous applause.
Why are you so popular, I ask. "Dunno," he replies. "Young, I guess. Bit different. Different hair." He admits he plays to the gallery. At Headingley, an inflatable watermelon amusing the masses strayed onto the pitch and was captured by a steward intent on summary puncture. Archer raced to the boundary, wrestled the toy from its jailer and returned it to the terrace to rapturous acclaim. "You need the crowd on your side," he says. Obviously, it helps when you're able to skittle out or terrify the opposition. Especially if the opposition is Australian.
Beloved as he now is by aficionados, his move across the Atlantic has not been without its difficulties. I ask what it was like, arriving for the first time to play 2nd XI cricket for Sussex aged 19. He had played age group games for the West Indies, but then experienced the pain of being cut from the national squad in advance of the Under-19 World Cup. Was that rejection what persuaded him to try his luck in England? "Kind of. I didn't really have many other choices. It was clear I wasn't part of their plans."
Encouraged by Chris Jordan (who, incidentally, went to school with that other Bajan icon, Rihanna), Archer enlisted with Sussex. And got injured more or less straight away. "Stress fracture. They say you aren't a proper fast bowler until you've had one." Fit again, he returned, this time for the 1st team, and, "Touch wood, I haven't been injured since."
He misses home. Not surprising, really, given what sounds like an idyllic childhood in Bridgetown. His mum is a fashion designer, his stepdad an IT consultant. His mother split from his biological father when Jofra was three. His family weren't poor but neither were they wealthy, and anyway, "Everybody makes the most of what they have in the Caribbean. You don't have to be well off to have a good time. I would not wish I grew up anywhere else. Over here I just wonder sometimes if the kids are bored, y'know? We got home from school and we're gone, running around in the street, playing, going to the beach. I don't see a lot of kids running around in England."
He was a largely well-behaved child, going to church on Sundays. "I still go when I get the chance." Mischief extended to "breaking a few windows and throwing a few rocks into beehives". Why? "It's just boys, man. You run away and it's fun." He giggles at the memory. "I'm remembering now. Over here, you're in your bubble so you forget, and you're a bit older so you won't be doing that anyway."
He seems remarkably even-tempered. When he did well on debut he didn't really celebrate. "I took it in my stride. I've always stepped up a level on debut. We had a quick turnaround. There'll be time to celebrate after the Ashes. We celebrated a bit after the last game – it was hard not to. I still can't believe we won the game." He drinks alcohol "very seldom". Has he ever been drunk? "Not that I can recall." Now that he has a flat and "an OK car", he thinks he will save and invest his new-found wealth. Don't be fooled by the chunky jewellery, tattoos and shades (courtesy of England's Test partner, Specsavers) – Archer isn't about to do anything too showy with his cash. "I like being at home on my Xbox, chilling," he says.
We got home from school and we're gone, running around. I don't see a lot of kids running around here.
Was his home in Bridgetown near the beach? "Everywhere's near the beach in Barbados," he replies. As is everywhere in Hove, but there the similarity ends. "Every time I pass the seafront, I miss the beach back home. Here, you can't really see the bottom, you don't know what's in there. There's no sand; it's pebbles." And the water's cold. "I don't know, I've never been in," he shudders. "Never set foot in it and I don't think I ever will, either."
Growing up, he played all sports, excelling at long jump and high jump, before focusing on cricket when he was about 16 and rapidly graduating from his school team to Barbados and then West Indies Under-19s. "I knew I was getting a lot better. It would be crazy to say I didn't think about playing international cricket. Every single kid that plays cricket, that watches TV, says, 'Y'know, I want that to be me some day.' " He was a confident kid then? "Not really. Just because you think it, doesn't mean it's gonna happen. I can recall at least 20 excellent cricketers back home, very talented boys, who just never got the chance."
What set Archer apart, talent and application aside, was his possession of the right document: "You can move to England but you won't be eligible without a British passport." He first came over aged 19. "It was a bit of a shock. I used to go home in September, then the club said they needed to put me through some gym programmes and monitor me, so I couldn't actually go home until December. I remember the sun going down at 4.30pm, raining ... When you get up in the morning, the car's covered in frost. I can see how someone could be depressed in the winter. I remember the first time I went home and slept after training. When I woke up it was dark. I could see it was six on the clock but I didn't see the pm. I thought, 'Shit, I've slept right through.' "
He missed his family until they started coming over to see him during the season. This year, his mum and stepdad stayed for the whole of the World Cup. Did they support England or the West Indies? "They supported me," he says firmly. He doesn't want to talk about his girlfriend, nor about his relationship with his father. "Can we skip that?" he says, very self-possessed for someone new to the demands of celebrity status.
For his first three years at Sussex, he lodged with one of his coaches. Now, he has his own flat. "Just over there," he gestures through the window to a block across the ground. His friend and mentor Chris Jordan lives next door with his family. How is he finding having his own place? "I'm very organised. The reason I got in a bit late today was because I was trying to clean up. Any of my coaches would testify to that. After my first game for England, I was folding my kit away and Trev [Trevor Bayliss, the coach] came over and said, 'Jeez.' I'm a tidy boy. I guess that's the Caribbean in me." Anyone who has visited the islands will recall the columns of schoolchildren, some emerging from rudimentary homes, all immaculately turned out. "Everybody makes the most of what they have in the Caribbean."
How has he found the transition from a country where almost everybody else is black to one in which his skin colour places him in a minority? Has it been an issue? "Not really, no. Look out the window." Below us on the outfield, a squad of players from a wide variety of ethnicities is warming up. "I reckon Sussex has the most colour on the whole county circuit."
Away from cricket, has he encountered any racism? "Yeah, funnily enough, yesterday I went into the supermarket – I don't think the guy was all the way there in the head. He passed me twice, in the line cashing out, then when I was going through the door. He said, 'Oh, these bloody people, coming to my country.' I just let it go, then he said something about thieves and I said, 'What was that? Excuse me?' He just kept going."
Does he think the racist knew who he was? "No – and I don't want him to. I don't want people to judge me for the stuff I do. I'd much rather someone didn't know who I am, then they're showing their true colours. If he did know what I do, he probably would have gone the opposite way and wanted to shake my hand and talk about cricket. This is one of the things you've got to take into consideration when you're coming to England. As you say, it's not gonna be like home where everyone's the same. People aren't as easygoing. You come here, you train hard, you stay in your corner, do what you've gotta do. I don't think I left the hotel once in the last Test."
That was, to be fair, a particularly draining match, if only emotionally. Archer batted with Ben Stokes for a while during Stokes's momentous, match-winning innings. "I thought my 15 was a very good innings. I was glad to take some of the stress off Ben. He still had about 80 to go. I was happy to contribute to an impossible win, to be able to tell my kids and grandkids I had something to do on that day." As his career unfolds, I suspect the star performances will easily outnumber the cameo roles.
Written by: Robert Crampton
© The Times of London