Pace bowler qualifies to play for England on Sunday but picking him this late for the tournament would be a bad decision
A weird thing kept happening during the TV broadcast of England’s white-ball series against West Indies. Whenever an English batsman steered the ball down to third man the camera would pan after it and viewers would catch a brief glimpse of something startling, a kind of apparition in the corner of the screen.
Look back at the highlights and there it is again: a tall, frighteningly still figure, half-glimpsed against the green. Some ancient pastoral scarecrow, a spirit of the land perhaps. Or maybe even death himself, lurking at the edge of your vision saying, yes, even here in this boozy island paradise I am among you. Fielding inside the circle. With a sunhat on. Occasionally pretending to jog after the ball and – actually, hang on, it’s just Chris Gayle fielding at point.
Gayle’s low-pulse take on fielding was a joy to watch in those games. But it was of course his batting, the gentle brutality of those 442 runs that illuminated the screen, and a few other things too.
Gayle didn’t just bully England’s world No 1-ranked bullies. His brilliance at the top of the innings helped gouge open a seam of doubt that was always likely to be there and which will hover around this meticulously prepared group of players from now until May.
England have often wobbled and shivered before a World Cup. This time was meant to be different. But it is also different in other ways, the most heavily resourced, most obviously needy four-year plan to win a white-ball World Cup in the history of trying to win white-ball World Cups.
At which point enter, quite innocently, Jofra Archer. Archer will qualify to play for England on Sunday, 10 weeks before their opening World Cup match. It has been a slightly strange process in itself. Archer has a British passport. He can live and work as an Englishman but not as an England cricketer, which required its own seven-year ECB qualification period.
This was scaled back in November, at the end of a year when Archer – no doubt unrelated – had shown the full depth of his talent in the franchise leagues, snaking the ball around at fearsome speed, with an ability to swallow down the occasion whole, unfazed by crowds or pressure (not many have worked Gayle over in T20 cricket: Archer has).
And so here we are on the verge of a fiddle-faddle. England will pick a provisional squad in April. They then have a final audition of seven ODIs in 16 days before the final deadline in May. At the end of which, given the tremors of anxiety, and given his obvious talent, Archer has a good chance of being rushed into the belly of England’s World Cup machine.
It is a move that will draw much excitement plus, of course, harrumphing from those who feel troubled by their own notions of nationality. But let’s ignore that for now and talk about sport. The fact is picking Archer this late would be a bad selection on its own merits; not to mention confirmation that England are still getting the World Cup wrong, and getting the basic point of all this wrong.
It is a hard thing to say because Archer is so likeable, so easy to visualise ripping the stumps out of the ground in an England shirt. But he is also being presented as something unrealistic, a magic bullet player, someone who can, we hear, bowl at the start, bowl at the end and bowl in the middle – our own Superman, Zorro and all-round deus ex machina, Christ off a 17-pace run. In reality Archer has played 15 List A games, with fair but not blinding returns. He’s less than three years into his career, still finding his game, as anyone who watched him blink a little in the Big Bash semi-final a few weeks back will be aware.
England waited too long. They should have changed the rules earlier, should have given him a fair run at this, time to learn and grow and make mistakes. Albeit, in a way, Archer is already playing for England, already a part of the familiar anxieties and mixed-messages. Welcome Jofra. Welcome to our world. Mainly, though, picking Archer would be confirmation that the ECB still considers the basic point of a World Cup is for England to win it, that this is the story here; and that there is some grand commercial redemption to be found at the end.
Whereas in fact sport is more difficult. Teams are hard to build. They run on talent, luck and a capricious internal energy. More than this they reflect the system behind them. Archer would be the 19th quick bowler to get a game in ODIs for England since the last World Cup. There is clearly a weakness there. The process has spoken. Maybe England winning while carrying that weakness will be the story. But plenty of others have a claim on victory too.
Either way the idea the nation will be out in Trafalgar Square suddenly if someone, anyone can get us over the line is in itself far-fetched; just as the notion winning a World Cup watched by the same closed audience can fix years of neglect of the sport’s wider frontiers is mildly idiotic.
Fast forward a year and the new Hundred competition has more hope of igniting a genuine wider interest, a chance to project the likes of Jofra, perhaps even the Universe Boss himself, into a few new places. For now England simply need to keep their nerve and follow the story to the end. As for Archer, he has the talent to meet this challenge. Even if it would perhaps be wiser to tweak a glute in the IPL and have a proper run when the dust and the angst and the longing have cleared.