It is always fascinating to see kids’ faces light up when they are presented with a shiny new toy. The moment they get hold of the prized possession, they act as if their life has changed. This is almost universal.
But not all kids are the same when it comes to how they handle the toy. While some just adore it and simply don’t let anyone get remotely near the object, others run it into the ground. Carried away by the ecstasy of having something invaluable, the second kind usually ends up overusing the toy and breaking it. It is only after the toy is shattered that they wish that they’d handled it more carefully.
England belong to the second category, and two years ago they behaved like the hyper, over-excited child as soon as they got their hands on the shiny new toy that was Jofra Archer. Never previously had they boasted a bowler like Archer, so as soon as they got their hands on him, they drove him into the ground.
Not only did they play him everywhere, but they also wanted him to do everything. Take wickets with the new ball in limited-overs? Jofra, it’s on you. Nail yorkers at the death? Jofra, it’s on you. Help a hopeless side stage a comeback in the Ashes? Jofra, it’s on you. Win Tests in South Africa? Jofra, it’s on you. Need an enforcer in a team full of medium pacers? Jofra, it’s on you. Bowling long spells on unresponsive New Zealand wickets? Jofra, it’s on you. ‘One more match, one more injection. You can do it, come on.’
It is little surprise, then, that Archer is currently sitting on his couch rehabbing, playing games, and tweeting when he should instead have been with the national team. Through some inexplicable handling, England broke Archer.
But expect things to be different once Archer returns. Not necessarily because the ECB would have learnt from their mistakes, but because they no longer need to put all their eggs in the Archer basket. For in the form of Ollie Robinson, the Three Lions have found a new go-to man outside Broad and Anderson. And his emergence could go a long way in taking a significant workload off Archer’s hands.
Whether Archer’s style of bowling is suitable for English conditions, and whether he’s their best bet with the Dukes ball back home, is still something that’s up for debate. But what’s been evident thus far is that both Joe Root and the England management feel that Archer walks into the XI at home when fit.
Between his debut at Lord’s in 2019 and the end of the summer in 2020, Archer featured in 8 of England’s 10 home Tests - he missed one due to a ban - and bowled more overs than everyone but Broad. His returns last summer were poor - 8 wickets in 8 innings at 45.00 - but England, nevertheless, continued to back him, staying true to their initial assessment of the Sussex man being their golden boy.
His continued selection in home Tests was also partly due to their lack of faith in seamers outside Broad and Anderson. Archer, they believed, unlike anyone else, had the ability to transcend conditions, and his package - the all-in-one bowler who could perform dual roles - made him too enticing to ignore.
But despite Archer getting valuable Test experience, his continued selection at home ended up non-beneficial for both parties. The presence of three Dukes behemoths - Broad, Anderson, and Woakes - meant that Archer’s impact was minimal (at times last summer, he was used as the fourth bowler) but nevertheless it ended up adding more overs and days of cricket under his belt.
Between July 2020 and March 2021, Archer bowled in more innings (25) in international cricket than any other seam bowler. Among all-format seamers, he also bowled the second-most number of overs (232.5) and in between all this, there was also the advent of the IPL. No wonder he broke down in April.
Robinson's emergence is significant because going forward, England will no longer have to exclusively look at Archer as their all-condition x-factor bowler at home. He might have just featured in 4 Tests, but Robinson has already shown that he has the skill and nous to penetrate batting line-ups notwithstanding the conditions at hand.
We know that Robinson can swing the ball both ways. We know that his height makes him a menace and we know that when there is even a tiny bit of help on the surface, he exploits it to the fullest. Batsmen in County Cricket have certainly come to know about this across the past 4 years. Since 2017, he has averaged below 22 every year in first-class cricket.
However, what makes Robinson the real deal is how effective he is on flat wickets (well, flat by England standards). He showed it in his very first outing in Test cricket against New Zealand at Lord’s in June.
On a sunny first day in London, the Kiwis opted to bat first and for the first half hour and they were untroubled. The absence of swing and seam made Anderson ineffective, and Broad did not fare great either. After 9 overs, the BlackCaps were coasting at 30/0 on a pitch which, according to CricViz, was the ‘flattest Day 1 at Lord's in the last five years.’
Things, suddenly, however, started happening once Robinson was introduced into the attack. The angles he created, his height, and his trajectory planted doubts in the mind of the batsmen, and the debutant struck in his fourth over after probing incessantly. Eventually, he finished with match figures of 7/101 on a Lord’s wicket that seamed just 0.58°, the lowest in three years. In other words, Robinson averaged 14.42 in a match in which all the other seamers averaged 34.55.
His near-flawless showing at Headingley - another flat wicket where conditions favored batsmen - only re-iterated how he is a bowler who transcends conditions and isn’t really reliant on the surface and overhead conditions to aid him to be effective.
Why this ultimately will prove beneficial to Archer, despite Robinson now being a direct competitor, is because England, now, have found another seamer who can fill in the role they were expecting him to do. To put it differently, there is no necessity for England to keep picking Archer at home anymore.
What made Archer stand out among his peers was his ability to take the pitch out of the equation, and his tendency to chip in as a leader. But in Robinson, England now have a player who can not just perform the same roles, but arguably do it better. Certainly, the two eight-overs spells Robinson bowled at Headingley - with the first and second new ball respectively - proved that skipper Root sees him as a spearhead of sorts.
Robinson taking Archer’s place at home will mean that England will finally be able to use the latter not as a workhorse who plays every game, but as an impact bowler; they can pick and choose matches where they want to utilize him.
It will enable them to use him more in white-ball cricket - where he is their most important player, where his impact dwarfs what he brings to the table with the red-ball - and in Tests away from home - where he’ll be important to the side than on helpful wickets back home - without the fear of overworking him. It is a luxury they’ve not had to date.
The ball is in England’s court. At their disposal is a special crop of bowlers, and slowly but steadily, the post-Broad/Anderson era seems to be taking shape. How they manage their resources will determine not just the team’s future, but also that of the players. The ECB and the English management have thus far been manic kids, but it’s time for them to curb their enthusiasm. Some toys are better off preserving.