According to Duolingo, following the first lockdown last year, the language learning app registered a 300% increase in new users in the UK. People were determined to put their time at home to good use by learning a new language and Duolingo has more than a hundred to choose from. The principle is quite simple. You build up a ‘streak’ of consecutive days by learning a little bit of a language each day. As your streak builds up, so does your understanding and knowledge. If you miss a day, your streak ends and you have to start over again. Progress is easier and quicker the more a user extends their run.
Jofra Archer looks set to begin a new streak of his own this week. He is expected to return to England’s team for the day-night Test in Ahmedabad after missing the second game in Chennai. Ostensibly that was because of an elbow injury but he would have been rested anyway as part of England’s rotation strategy. His absence continued the theme of his past 12 months in Test cricket, a period when he has spent more time out of the Test team than in it. The second Test was the third – out of four – that he has missed so far this winter.
Archer actually began his Test career with seven successive matches, starting in the 2019 Ashes and ending with injury after the opening fixture against South Africa last winter. Since then, however, he has played just five of England’s thirteen Tests through a combination of injury, rotation and a bio-secure bubble breach. He has played consecutive England Tests just once since that initial run and in that time, he averages more than 41 with the ball. While that statistic is misleading – Archer has bowled better than that – it is an indication, perhaps, that it is not easy having to stop and start all the time.
There are parallels here with the start of James Anderson’s career. Of the 63 Test matches England played from Anderson’s debut in 2003 to the tour of New Zealand in 2008 when he finally became the leader of the attack, the Lancastrian appeared in less than a third. He was in and out of the side because of injury and poor form and his bowling average after his first 20 Tests was a shade under 40. It was only once Anderson finally established himself and began to string a run of games together, that he really kicked on as a Test match bowler. The flashes of brilliance turned into sustained excellence.
There is an important difference in Archer’s situation, however. He has been dropped just once since his debut and that was for disciplinary issues rather than form. Many of the Tests Archer has missed have been for reasons out of his control. Injuries are an occupational hazard for quick bowlers and England have rested Archer from four of their last six Tests as well. In the face of a ridiculous schedule and COVID concerns, they have opted to focus on his long-term fitness and freshness. That is understandable given Archer is a first-choice player in all formats but it has also come at the expense of giving him more Test match experience.
In an ideal world Archer would have played more Test cricket of late than he has. No matter how talented a bowler is – and there is no doubting Archer’s talent – match experience is vital. Learning on the job accelerates development as players are exposed to different conditions and situations. After his early experiences away from home, for example, Anderson knew he had to become adept at using cutters, wobble seam deliveries and reverse swing if he was to be effective outside England.
That sort of process is something Archer has to go through too. As good as he already is in Test cricket, he only has 12 caps to his name. He still has a lot to learn. “He is still a very inexperienced Test match bowler,” Jon Lewis, who was part of England’s coaching team for the first two Tests of this series, says. “He is definitely learning and developing. You will find Jofra is a much improved 50-over and T20 bowler than when he started because he has played more of it. But he has had a few niggles, which is inevitable with a young fast-bowler.
“You listen to the ex-players and the ex-captains and they will talk about just keep playing, just keep playing but the volume of cricket these guys play now is massive and the choice they now have is varied. It is a totally different situation in this era. There is a lot of cricket coming up. By the time we get to Australia, looking at Tests four and five which we will have to play well in if we are going to be in a winning situation, we are going to have to call on guys to be fresh, hence the decisions to rest players now.”
Lewis says Archer is quite phlegmatic about being rested, understanding the longer-term view England’s management are taking. In Archer’s case, they are particularly sensitive about looking after the 25 year-old because they realise how valuable he is to the team. They are also conscious to avoid over-bowling him as they did in the early part of his Test career which may have contributed to the elbow injury he sustained on the tour of South Africa. And Archer himself seems to be happy enough with the approach. “Rest and rotation is necessary for now,” he said in Ahmedabad.
What has been so impressive is that when Archer has played, he has generally been able to maintain his level of performance. He was excellent in the first Test, for example, despite last playing Test cricket in August. If you strip away the rest and rotation policy, Archer would be in England’s strongest team which is testament to how quickly he has established himself. According to Lewis, Archer has been able to handle his relative lack of Test cricket well because he doesn’t need as much bowling to hit top form as some others.
“Some bowlers find it easier to do than others,” Lewis says. “Some need to keep bowling, more workhorse type bowlers. Jofra is not really like that. He can stop and start, he is such a natural. Easy is the wrong word but he is such a natural cricketer. People always say everything looks so easy for him. It’s definitely not easy but he makes it look easy. What he does isn’t simple but because it looks effortless, everyone thinks it is effortless. It is not but everything he does is so smooth and so rhythmical and his timing is good. He is an excellent cricketer.”
That excellence is the reason Archer is one of England’s most important players across all formats. As such, he needs to be looked after. He simply can’t play every match, that much is clear. But at the same time, if he is to continue his development as a Test match bowler, at some stage he will need to play more Test cricket than he has during the past 12 months. After all, no amount of bowling in the nets can make up for those hard-won experiences out in the middle. For now, Archer looks set to begin a new streak in England’s Test team this week. It just remains to be seen how long this one lasts.