Jofra Archer is thinking of buying a calendar. “Just to cross them down and feel like the days are going faster,” he says. As he nears the end of his latest confinement, with the Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League, the days and nights have begun to weigh heavy. There are worse places to be imprisoned than a luxury Dubai hotel with access to a private beach. He gets that. Even so, he craves escape. “It will be over soon,” he says. “You’re just counting the days down until you’re free again.”
Freedom will be sweet and fleeting. Rajasthan’s last fixture of the regular season is on Sunday. But get all the way to the final on 10 November and Archer – like his England teammates Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler – will have five days to enjoy the comforts of home before flying out for the white-ball tour of South Africa. The next assignment. The next bubble.
This is how Archer has spent much of 2020 and how he will probably spend much of 2021 too. It’s not all bad: he is surrounded by teammates, his family have been out to visit and then there is the small matter of being paid lavish sums to play a sport he loves. Even if nobody is around to watch it. “No crowds is probably sucking most of the excitement out of the game,” Archer says. “It’s like bowling in the nets again. I guess it’s the best of a bad situation, bubble-wise.”
The irony here is that this strange, sterile and mentally disorienting environment has produced some of the best and most consistent cricket of his career. With the ball, he has been devastatingly quick and relentlessly accurate, taking 17 wickets and dragging a misfiring Rajasthan team up by its straps. He has bowled four of the 10 fastest deliveries in this year’s IPL. More than half of his deliveries have been dot balls.
The sight of Archer scattering both stumps and opening batsmen has become one of the defining motifs of the tournament. Not least for David Warner, who has now faced 45 balls from Archer this year in all formats, and been dismissed from six of them. “You can only bowl at who’s there,” Archer says in typically sanguine fashion when asked about turning one of the world’s most feared batsmen into his personal valet. “I guess I was just fortunate enough that it was him.”
With the bat, Archer has grown into a ruinous late-overs hitter. One in five of the deliveries he has faced has gone for six. Against Chennai last month, he took 26 off the final over, bowled by a forlorn Lungi Ngidi. This is not simply a personal summit. Based on pure impact, Archer is currently enjoying one of the greatest IPL seasons.
Naturally, there is a temptation here to search for parables and meanings in all this: perhaps to contrast the relative calm of the Emirati franchise bubble with the ceaseless chatter and hand-wringing angst that seems to pursue Archer in England colours. The truth is a little more complex and a little more simple. Give a world-class bowler a stage, give him responsibility befitting his talent, and the rest takes care of itself. Or, as he puts it: “You don’t really need to fix what’s not broken.”
What the future holds, by contrast, is anyone’s guess. Archer’s England colleague Mark Wood has already admitted his future might lie in white-ball specialism. Archer believes an all-format career is still feasible. “It just goes down to man-management,” he says. “You can definitely play all three [formats], but they can’t expect you to play every single game.
“I’ve probably done the most bubble days out of anyone. From an on-field point of view, it’s fine. But Woody has just had a kid and the time he is spending away from cricket is now very, very precious. Being in a Covid bubble, you are going to need your family with you. It helps you stay sane. Four or five days in, you start to get a little bit of cabin fever. You need your family to take some of that pressure off you.”
Ultimately, in the Covid era this is a question that goes beyond performance and into basic human well-being. How much sacrifice is it reasonable to demand of these young athletes, wilfully shuttering themselves away from friends and family for our entertainment? Cricket as a sport is still grappling with the answer.
While it does, Archer will still be whiling away the hours in his hotel room, waiting for his freedom. “You’re just counting days down,” he says. “You’re still going to play and train. But when you’re done, you’re just counting days down.”
Rajasthan Royals v Kings XI Punjab, Dream11 IPL, live on Sky Sports, Friday 2pm