England vs England Lions – Jofra Archer on return to England action

“A small day but still a big day,” was how Jofra Archer described day one of this three-day match between the Test squad and the England Lions.

Wednesday was the first time since March 2021 that Archer had bowled in an England shirt, even if he was doing so for the Lions, and his first proper run-out since July 2021. Those nine overs of 0 for 38, split across spells of five and four, are a small aside in the context of this week, as England focus in on a three-Test tour of Pakistan. For Archer, however, it was the first of a number of calculated steps on the horizon.

The next will come in January in the SA20 where Archer has signed for MI Cape Town. He will play two games for the franchise before joining up with England for their three-match series against South Africa. A limited-overs tour of Bangladesh will follow before moving onto the IPL with Mumbai Indians.

And then, come June, England will be gearing up for the Ashes before switching their focus to the defense of their 50-over crown in the ODI World Cup in India later that winter. Whether Archer will be involved in each phase of this itinerary will depend on how he makes it through the plan that he has concocted with the ECB physios and director of men’s cricket Rob Key.

“The absolute key for Jofra is that we don’t want him to have to go through what he has been through for the last year and a half ever again,” Key said. “There is no perfect scenario [in recovery]but this bit now is so crucial to make sure that [his] bone density and all the other things I don’t understand are strong, so he is robust enough for the rigor of being a multi-format cricketer, who is going to have franchise deals and stuff like that, so we can get the best out of him when it really matters.”

This is not simply an Archer comeback crescendo-ing to Australia’s visit next summer. This is about building long-term durability after almost two years out of action, due to stress fractures of his elbow and then back. Simply, it is about Jofra Archer.

“This is probably the first time I’ve been so close to umpires in about 18 months as well,” Archer said with a smile. “It’s really good to be back and being here with all the guys is probably the best way to do it as well.”

He had been out in Dubai with the Lions since the start of November before moving to Abu Dhabi on Tuesday evening ahead of this match. Preparation has been tapered with match situations at close to match intensity, which is how he was able to crank up to speeds of 90mph – as per the ECB’s on-site speed gun – and pin opener Zak Crawley in the head with the sixth ball of the match. “I wasn’t even trying to hit him, I was just trying to get out of the over!”

Of course, the most important aspect of what he did on Wednesday was how he felt on Thursday. Thankfully for all concerned, the aches Archer does feel give him comfort.

“I feel sore – the usual when you bowl. Nothing to worry about at all. It’s weird feeling this way again. This is probably the best soreness I’ve ever had after bowling. I’ll take this!

“Hopefully it stays like this, as I play some more cricket and it goes on. It was really nice, yesterday was a really really big day. It was a small day but still a big day.”

To Archer’s mind, he is “fully back”, but in the sense that he is bowling sharply and is around the team in a meaningful way. He believes that this is the beginning of the end of what has been a period of deep frustration and torment.

“I think getting on the plane and coming here was the start,” he said. “Obviously to get back to the first team is my number one priority at the minute. But also getting back there as safely as possible.”

Resisting the temptation to rush to the end is paramount. “You’d be crazy not to say you want to go to Pakistan,” he admitted, wide-eyed, clearly desperate to add to 13 Test caps and 42 wickets. “But that might not be the best move.” He will also not be considered for selection for March’s two-Test series in New Zealand.

“I’d rather take these last few months very seriously, more serious than probably all of the rehab. Because once this phase goes right, then it can set me up for the next three to four years injury-free. That’s the goal right now.”

Underpinning the meticulous planning, medical expertise and diligence from those working with Archer is a clear maturity from the man himself. It is evident when he recalls the timeline of events that kept him out of action for this long. The clarity of thought, the appreciation of misfortune, no resenting the universe or the cricketing gods. And acceptance that, particularly in the case of stress fractures, they can happen again but he should not live in fear of that.

“It wasn’t 18 months continuously. First time, I was getting ready to play the Hundred that summer [2021] and the results of the scan came in and said I had a stressy [elbow]. I literally had my kit bag packed and everything was ready to go. Then I got that call saying I had a stressy so then I took some time off and rehabbed.

“And then when the Tests were in Barbados [March 2022] I was in Barbados as well and it was probably about 80 percent then. And then my back went. So, I don’t feel I was out for that long doing nothing, because I was training, then had to stop, then built up training again and then had to stop.

“You’re still a little bit wary because I’ve done it twice and it’s happened. It’s in the back of your mind. But I think I’ve just about got past it… and yesterday was probably the first time I could let it goes. If it happens, it happens, but you can’t just keep taking a back step.”

It helped that Archer was away from England – spending, he reckons, 80 percent of his time at home in Barbados. “It hurt but not that bad: I was already home with my family and my friends and my dogs, so it was a bit easier to deal with.”

He was also away from prying eyes during his various stints of recovery and, equally helpful, was a bit of distance between him and the team to which he had previously been integral.

“Luckily being in Barbados, the time difference helped a lot with not being able to watch a lot of cricket. Obviously I watched the semi-final in Dubai, the T20 one [2021]. I watched that, but a lot of the games I tried my best not to watch.

“I watched some of the Ashes because it would come on just as I was going to bed. So I watched a little bit, but you don’t watch as intently because the wickets were really good in Oz this year, I’m not going to lie. It was a little bit painful to watch it on TV.

“You’ve just got to take yourself away a little bit. It’s not that you’re not supporting the lads or anything like that, but you’ve got a long time away and you’re no help to the lads or yourself if you’re just drone in the background feeling down.”

At the same time, Archer has been able to appreciate the glory without feeling a sense of FOMO. The T20 World Cup earlier this month “wasn’t painful at all”, because at no point did he feel Jos Buttler needed him – in the best way possible.

“To be honest, I don’t think I really wanted to be there because obviously the guys at the tournament I had absolute faith that they were going to do it, so there was no need for me to go.

“I spoke to CJ [Chris Jordan] everyday, he even called me just after the game [final] finished and you still felt like you were part of the team and part of the celebrations. Hopefully when he gets back I get to see his medal. We’ve got a World Cup coming up next year as well so hopefully get a chance to help defend that.”

It’s worth reiterating, even on behalf of Archer, that he never entertained the idea of ​​playing exclusively white-ball cricket upon returning. He himself is bemused at just how often it comes up.

“I’m actually surprised that I actually hear it that often. Everyone, from the very first week I was off, up until the last few weeks of rehab, you know?”

Test cricket is his passion, and the Ashes could represent a milestone in his journey so far, after the manner in which he impressed in his maiden international season. “I’m more than prepared to do some extra bowling and stuff in and around some other cricket, just to put my name in the hat [for that series].”

But there’s plenty of love on offer for the other formats. The depth of players and the tailored plans around selection (specifically, rotation) gives him the belief that players can get their fill of all codes without doing themselves mischief.

“Given the strength of our squad, you can do it because you don’t have to play every single game,” he said. “The squad is strong enough that we can rotate players. I would love to play every game, but I don’t think the physio would let me.”

Amid the interest in his return to match bowling this week came a wave of goodwill messages across social media. “My phone kept going off a long time after,” he said of the reaction to photos of him with whites and a red ball in his hand. One of his friends commented on the scale of the reaction on Twitter. His Instagram account was just as full of love.

He smiles at the mention of the umpteen tags on his own Instagram after he had reposted some of those well-wishes. At the same time, he is taking nothing for granted.

“It’s a practice game, and it’s been very good to get some cobwebs off. I’ve probably got a few, maybe 50 or 60 days, before the next set of white-ball stuff, so after this I’m going to continue training because for me now, I can’t relax. I can’t take it particularly easy because I want to be ready for when the opportunity comes.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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