England: Latest Jofra Archer comeback a boost for T20 defence, but on one condition

Back: Jofra Archer (Danny Lawson/PA Wire)
Back: Jofra Archer (Danny Lawson/PA Wire)

“Whatever metric you employ to measure the passing of time — days, months, Chancellors, Watford managers — it has been too long."

That was the opening line of a piece on these pages last March, as Jofra Archer prepared to make his latest England comeback, against South Africa in a three-match ODI series, after almost two years on the international sidelines.

The wait this time around has not been quite as long (382 days, three men in the Watford dugout and only one in No11 Downing Street), but, for both England and Archer, the sense of urgency is more acute.

Wednesday night's opening T20 against Pakistan is, glossing over the huge threat of a washout, one of just four matches before England fly to the Caribbean next Friday to start their World Cup defence.

That is just four chances for Jos Buttler and Matthew Mott to fine-tune ahead of a tournament that will surely decide whether captain and head coach stay on, and, given Archer is unlikely to play every game, even fewer for the fast bowler to prove himself fit, despite having played no top-level cricket in more than a year.

Now 29, Archer admitted in a recent interview that he may not have another false start in him, that brief return of spring 2023 soon shot down in May by the recurrence of a stress fracture at the IPL.

England's inclination since has been one of understandable uber-caution around a player who has not played a home international since 2020. In October, Archer was handed a two-year central contract to ensure control over his workload as the franchises circled, then pulled out of this year's IPL by the ECB in favour of a gentler rehabilitation, on the Bajan club cricket scene and, in a six-over burst at Beckenham last week, for Sussex's second string.

Yet, for all the talk of a long game that has already seen the seamer ruled out of Test cricket until 2025, there is also a sense that with a player so talented but so fragile, there is a need to make hay while the sun shines (for all it is not forecast to do so in Leeds).

"He's fully fit, and the medical team will advise how best to manage him," Buttler said yesterday. "[He'll play] as many [games] as possible: he's missed a lot of cricket and he's desperate to get back out there."

Every facet of England's 50-over side was exposed during last year's disastrous World Cup defence, but their Archer-less bowling particularly so. In T20 cricket, they have made a better, cleverer fist of hiding their attack's deficiencies and, in a squad stacked with all-rounders, Buttler will likely go into each game of the World Cup with seven nicely varied bowling options up his sleeve. Even so, in a tournament when bat is expected to dominate ball, having four overs of Archer would offer enviable wiggle room.

"Any player of his calibre is a huge asset to any team," Buttler added. "Absolutely, he makes us a better side and [gives us] a better chance of winning."

We have seen enough of these comebacks to know Archer takes little time getting up to speed. The only hope is that this one sticks.