ECB should not tap its feet for four years before embracing Jofra Archer | Barney Ronay

England are missing a trick by waiting until the gifted Sussex all-rounder is 27 and need to put a yorker through the rule book

Even with a week to sit on it there is no obvious easing of the dunder-headed inanity that surrounds the England and Wales Cricket Board’s proposed 100-ball competition. On wider reflection this isn’t just a bad idea. It’s more out-there than that, the kind of idea you might expect a precocious toddler to come up with, or some other species altogether: an ambitious sports-marketing chicken with a below average IQ, or a squirrel promoted by a series of unlikely events to a key management role in the national summer sport.

Perhaps the only real purpose it has at this stage is to demonstrate that nobody really understands cricket any more. Not the people who watch and play it, and certainly not those overseeing its aggressive dissolution into various constituent parts.

And yet there is always clarity. New forms, new shapes and above all pure, non-negotiable talent. At which point, enter Jofra Archer, surely the post-modern sporting personage to stroll across the fault lines in English cricket’s immediate future.

Yes he still sounds like the Queen’s third cousin trying to pronounce the name of the author of Kane and Abel but Archer’s progress from here is likely to speak to how and where cricket will exist at this level in the future.

Right now he has the world pretty much curled up in his lap. From a tough upbringing in Barbados, through back injuries and remodelling at Sussex, the last two years have been a period of extreme fast-forward for a 23-year-old fast bowling all-rounder of prodigious, insouciant athleticism.

This week Archer got his first shot in the Indian Premier League. It was predictably spectacular, containing towards the end of his bowling spell one of those moments that carves out its own little pocket of calm in the middle of all that groin-thrusting pizzazz.

Hardik Pandya had just pinged the third ball of Archer’s fourth over back past him with real whip-crack power. Archer shrugged and walked back. There was no obvious change in his straight, gliding run but the next ball was an express yorker that thunked Pandya’s pad and splayed his stumps. The one after that was up at 93mph and just too much for Mitch McClenaghan, who offered his bat only vaguely, like a man suggesting talks about talks.

Archer smiled and eventually did a funny little dance, all goofy, incredulous charm. But he must be getting used to these moments because everybody wants a piece of Jofra, from the IPL to the Big Bash to West Indies, for whom he no longer qualifies because of an absence from domestic cricket.

Everyone, it seems, except the ECB. While the world outside gorges on his peak years, and with Archer committed to playing Tests for England, English cricket continues to tap its foot, to count those 210 residency days a year, to insist we all wait until Archer is 27 years old before deeming him English enough to play.

Rules are rules. There are good reasons why cricket is protective of its borders, why football’s parents-and-grandparents qualification rule would be destructive and confusing. International sport makes sense only as a clash of system, a gauge of culture and resources. All the more so in cricket where the whole process is bound up in nurture and knowledge passed down, whether in a spiffy indoor school or playing with a tape ball.

Jofra Archer
Jofra Archer is wanted by the Indian Premier League, the Big Bash and West Indies but not England. Photograph: Mark Brake/Getty Images

And yet there is still a weirdness to Archer’s seven years. He has a British passport. He was born with the right to live and work in the UK. He has been hugely improved, even defined in a cricket sense by his experiences at Sussex. And yet the ECB still maintains he is not quite of the system, that he must do his time in the ennobling purgatory of county cricket, thereby becoming eligible, like every other England player, to ignore it completely after that.

The rules on this were tightened in 2012, with four years increased to seven, cracking down on incomers and creating incentives for the domestic production line. This was the hostile environment the ECB sought to create.

The world has changed since then. Brexit will close the Kolpak hole. Meanwhile international cricket is fading, out-swanked by the franchises. Is there really a need to set up such high fences, to fight them off with quite such a large stick?

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There are a few things that could happen. The ECB could decide to give Archer a discretionary four years instead. Or the rules could change. What harm would there be in adding a favourable loophole? How about two years for passport holders from Commonwealth countries. Or even – gasp – no years at all.

Until then Archer will remain a citizen of the fractured global game, eligible to play for no one and also everyone, a cricketing version of those people who end up living in airport arrivals, strolling the sealed environment, living off tiny shower gel capsules and casual dining meal deals.

At a time when the ECB is willing to rewrite the basic rules of cricket in search of the Confused Mum Pound, it seems a little absurd to maintain such a hard line. This is a player who has the gifts and the grace to draw in people; and to provide the only part that really matters in the end, those moments of galvanising beauty.

Contributor

Barney Ronay

The GuardianTramp

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