As You Think So You Become
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When it comes to international cricket, Jofra Archer has been a young man in a hurry. Since he made his England debut at the start of last summer, he has won a World Cup and made an immediate impression on Test cricket during the Ashes series. Thanks to his pace and his skill, almost overnight he has become one of England's most important players in all formats. But with that rise has come greater expectation. And when those expectations have not been met, criticism has followed.
Archer's difficult tour to New Zealand, when he took just two wickets for the cost of 209 runs across two Tests, was the first real time that things had not gone all his own way in an England shirt. There was particular criticism of his pace, which was down at times on the 90mph thunderbolts he had consistently served up against Australia, but little recognition that both Test matches in New Zealand were played on pitches as flat as pancakes. This was also Archer's first experience with the red Kookaburra ball and his first Tests away from home.
Nevertheless, for a bowler who was supposed to provide England with a cutting edge on flat pitches, it wasn't quite the start to life as an overseas Test bowler either Joe Root or Archer had in mind. Things started better on this tour of South Africa, however, with a five-wicket haul in South Africa's second innings at Centurion and a return to somewhere near his menacing best. But then a longstanding elbow injury struck, ruling Archer out of England's victory at Newlands.
It remains unclear whether Archer has fully recovered from the injury ahead of the third Test in Port Elizabeth which begins on Thursday (January 16). There were reports from training on Wednesday that he didn't look all that comfortable when bowling in the nets and Root suggested that Archer would not be risked if not fully fit.
But there are also indications that England may be considering selecting Mark Wood to replace the injured James Anderson in the final eleven even if Archer is deemed available for selection. If so, it would be the first time he has been dropped by England.
"He's 24 years old. He's right at the start of his career," Root said. "He's got a huge amount of ability and in seven Test matches got three five-wicket hauls.It's clear to see what he's capable of doing and he's very much at the start. Managing workloads is a very important part of it as well. He's played a huge amount of cricket since he's come into the international arena and we've seen a little bit of pushback from his body, with the elbow injury.
"Of course if he's fit and raring to go you want him in your side, but you've also got to make sure that he's 100% ready and he can deliver all of his skills, not just being able to seam it around and swing it, but bowl at 90mph too. We've got to look after him as a player and his career as well as just trying to obviously win this series."
While Archer's selection or otherwise for the third Test will depend on whether he is fully fit, Root also acknowledged that England need to manage the expectation around him, particularly given the limited Test, and indeed red-ball, experience he has.
"He's come into international cricket off the back of some brilliant domestic T20 cricket in particular," Root said. "I know he's performed well in county cricket but his reputation has been from IPL cricket, from Big Bash cricket, performing and excelling in that.
"He came into Test cricket already with a reputation the standard of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, people were matching him with Pat Cummings, [Josh] Hazelwood, [Mitchell] Starc. But these players have played a lot of Test cricket. For him it's about managing where he's at in his career and for us as a management group, understanding that he's very young as well and that every game he will learn, every game he picks things up. He's a very fast learner, we've seen that in white ball cricket, and we have to give him that opportunity in Test cricket as well."
Should Wood be selected, it would be his first game since the third Test in Saint Lucia on the tour of the Caribbean last winter. Then, he blitzed West Indies during their first innings, picking up five-wickets in one of the quickest spells an England bowler has ever produced. It proved the catalyst for a comprehensive victory and hinted at the destruction Wood can wreak when fully fit. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to back that performance up in Test cricket since. An injury sustained during the World Cup final has ruled him out of the game until now.
He could well be rusty. He has not played a competitive match since the World Cup final and although he has been bowling quickly in the nets, it would be a risk to throw him into a Test with such limited matchplay behind him. Root confirmed, however, that it might be a risk England are willing to take. "Every now and again you can't worry too often about is he going to get through a five-day game," Root said. "If they've proven themselves to be fit and they've jumped through every hoop and worked very hard to get back there, you've got to give them that opportunity."
Whoever England select, they will go into the third Test with plenty of confidence following an excellent display at Newlands. That it was achieved with five players under the age of 24 pleased Root even more.
"It's very exciting especially with a young group of players," Root said. "For those guys who experienced the last game and for us to get across the line in that fashion is a really big move forward for us as a team and should give them a huge amount of confidence.
"We speak a lot about attitude and effort and the environment we're trying to create and the culture of our three teams. I thought we lived that brilliantly across the five days down in Cape Town so it's backing that up [in Port Elizabeth]. With a young group of players the challenge is always, once you've performed very well and you've won a game, it's then can you then back that up? I'm very confident that we can but it's a good challenge for us."
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