At Lord’s last week, on the fifth day of the second Ashes Test, Steve Smith’s concussion substitute, Marnus Labuschagne – the first ever - was welcomed to the crease by a bouncer that crashed into his helmet grille like a meteor. Former England skipper, Nasser Hussain, described that delivery from Jofra Archer as a ‘heavy ball’; it was nasty and it could kill!
Archer, the Barbados-born pace sensation, who turned out for England this World Cup, wasn’t boasting when in one of his tweets, a couple of years ago, he had advised batsmen facing him to carry an extra helmet in their kit bags. In fact, within only a few months of his international debut, cricket authorities are already talking about extra protection for batsmen, in the form of a neck-guard, to prevent grievous injury.
The England pace-ace is 6’2” tall, strongly built, supple and surprisingly nimble-footed for a man of his size. Archer is often known to bowl at around 95 mph during a spell and can sustain those speeds through the innings because of a simple, almost languid bowling action. In the Lord’s Test, when one of his bouncers stood up and hit Smith on the neck, the ball was released at nearly 94 mph and the Australian batsman seemed to have lost sight of it on its way up.
How does Archer generate so much pace? His run-up is short and uncomplicated for someone who bowls frighteningly fast, unlike somebody like Shoaib Akhtar who used to literally charge in like a bull. Like the legendary Australian pacer, Glenn McGrath, his run-up is more about efficiency and less about theatrics. Archer’s gather or ‘loading’ is reminiscent of another legend, Courtney Walsh. His front leg is straight in the bowling stride and this helps him transfer the momentum built up from the run-up and the gather into the delivery. He has a classic hip-rotation and his bowling arm is just a blur as the ball is released. His arm speed and hip rotation are somewhat like Wasim Akram, who could bowl quick off only a few paces. Finally, what separates him from other fast bowlers is his long arms and supple wrists which allow him to extract pace, bounce and swing from any track.
Batsmen who have faced Archer cite two reasons for not picking his bouncers. One of them is his arm speed. The other is his ability to swing the ball, at 90 plus miles per hour, with a small, indiscernible change in wrist angle as the ball is let go. It is said that when a ball travels 20 yards at 90 mph, the batsman actually gets 0.2 seconds to judge the line and length of the ball and another 0.2 seconds to react to it. Therefore, the point of release of the ball gives batsmen an early clue as to the line and length of the ball. Deliveries pitched up are released early and the short-pitched ones are released late. With Archer, batsmen find it difficult to read the cues, because of his rapid arm action, and are therefore always left guessing.
Archer’s scorching pace combined with his ability to swing and seam the ball is what actually makes him a dangerous bowler. Since he bowls with a chest-on action, the in-swinger to the right-handed batsman is his stock ball. The cue to his in-swinger is his high-arm action, with the torso bending a bit sideways to accommodate his arm in the delivery arc and the finish of his bowling arm on his right thigh. When he bowls the away-swinger or the ball that seams away from the right-handed batsman, his arm points at 11 O’clock on the watch, his wrist turns slip-ward and his bowling arm finishes next to his left hip.
Now that we have attempted to dissect his bowling action, let’s move on to his bouncers. Archer’s short-pitched balls to right-handed batsmen dart in, off the wicket, like a guided missile aimed at their throats. To left-handed batsmen, he prefers going round the wicket and pitching short so that the ball follows them – the outswinger to right-handers. As stated earlier, most batsmen find it difficult to pick his line and length, because of arm-speed, and therefore get hit by short balls that tuck them up.
Smith, who is by far the best batsman in the world at present, was hit by Archer’s bouncer when he was batting on 80 in the Lord’s Test. In the first Test at Birmingham, he had scored a hundred in each innings and was on his way to yet another hundred in the second Test. He had, more or less, dealt with Archer and Co quite efficiently till he received that gruesome hit on the neck. A few moments before that injury, which later resulted in concussion and Smith having had to drop out of the third Test, he had pulled Archer for a four off a short ball that had swung into him. Here’s what I believe happened:
With a distinct back-and-across movement in the crease, Smith usually gets his right foot outside the line of the off-stump before the ball is released. This, it is said, helps him to deal adequately with the short ball. That fateful English afternoon, he had got into the perfect position to hook Archer, as soon as he had seen the short ball coming. The clever operator that Archer is, he didn’t bowl the usual inswinger but delivered a skidding outswinger that followed the batsman outside off-stump. When Smith realized that he had been fooled, he tried to get out of the way of the bouncer but by then it was too late.
It was a sickening blow that shook the players, spectators and viewers on TV alike. Thoughts of a Phil Hughes like injury were quickly dispelled though after Smith stood up and wanted to continue batting. However, experts later revealed that Smith’s injury was only a few millimetres away from the vertebral artery, a dissection of which had killed Hughes in November 2014.
Cricket is a game played by 22 people – and perhaps watched by 22 million — but it is a lonely feeling out there when a batsman’s determination to survive and score runs is challenged by bowlers of the calibre of Jofra Archer. The great Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh once said, “Fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.”
I, for one, am looking forward to the next battle between Steve Smith and Jofra Archer, come September at Old Trafford, Manchester. Let’s play!
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, coach and sports administrator, he doesn’t believe in calling a spade a shovel.