After a series of unforgettable performances, winning England the World Cup before helping rescue the Ashes a mere six weeks later, Jofra Archer has burst memorably into English cricketing consciousness. A major figure for the national side since he became eligible to play for England in late 2018, in recent months Archer has stood out from his team mates in a number of ways.
Archer’s most distinctive feature is his immense talent. With a fluent, effortless run-up and delivery stride, Archer appears much taller than the six feet he occupies. The extraordinary speed of which he is capable, unparalleled by Englishmen in recent years, makes him a terrifying prospect. As the Old Trafford test begins, Archer has struck fear into the hearts of Australian batsmen such as Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne who were hit by his bowling in the third test.
Archer stands out, too, in his cool demeanour and response to pressure. A calm head on 24-year-old shoulders, in the World Cup final he had no qualms about stepping up as the tension mounted to fever-pitch with an impressive Super Over to secure victory for England.
Commentators have also pointed to Archer’s race as a way that he stands out. They have celebrated the inclusion of a black player in the side – the first since Chris Jordan’s test career ended in 2015 – and the greater diversity which he represents. Cricket is played across England and Wales by people of a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, and the integration of players of different races into the national team is something to be further encouraged. It should also be a normal part of the modern game rather than a series of isolated examples to be celebrated individually.
But the real reason that Archer represents such a success story is his seamless integration into the team not only as a black Englishman, but as a foreign-born black Englishman. It is a happy reflection of our evolving conceptions of nationality that Archer has been embraced as fully English despite not having had British citizenship until the age of eight.
We have moved on from the (still recent) days when the number of South African-born players in the team was a source of embarrassment to some England fans. Thankfully Archer has not faced the suggestions – frequently levelled at the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott – that his foreign origins in some way undermine his Englishness as a player.
Archer’s West Indian roots are highly visible in his style of play. Having first learnt his cricket in Barbados, his bowling is recognisably in the traditions of the West Indian bowlers of the eighties. His smooth, graceful run-up and short-pitched, aggressive deliveries are reminiscent of Michael Holding, Joel Gardner and Malcolm Marshall, who belonged to a former golden age of West Indian fast bowling. Archer reminds an older generation of spectators and players of the opponents whom English batsmen used to fear.
It is a positive indication of contemporary mentalities in English cricketing communities that neither Archer’s race nor this heritage in a foreign cricketing tradition have lessened their pride in him as an English star.
Historically, group identity has so often been constructed against a marginalised ‘Other’. When not mitigated properly, this process of identity formation through exclusion can have dangerous consequences. By contrast, through the Ashes, as with much national sport, notions of Englishness can gain in strength not through marginalising a group but against a sporting competitor: an Australian foe to be challenged within the boundary rope.
This is not to deny the continued existence of racism in sport, nor the need to fight it fully whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head. We must also be careful not to present Archer’s reception as typical of the experience of all West-Indian Brits: sadly but perhaps inevitably, an English sporting hero is more likely to be accepted than others who share his ethnicity and background. In cricket’s best moments, however, a notion of nationality can emerge which embraces difference in all its forms against a common opponent. The case of Archer stands as a hopeful symbol of changing approaches to nationality within England.
We must of course, however, be wary of conflating support for the English team with a broader understanding of Englishness. We have thankfully moved far beyond ideas of the infamous ‘Tebbit test’, a suggestion by Lord Tebbit back in the early nineties that support among migrants for England over their former countries was a suitable test of their successful integration. Such ideas are now long behind us and represent an outmoded idea of nationality to be grimaced at.
The notion of Englishness which the test team represents is happily diverse and plural, but is far from the only one. Support for a variety of cricketing nations around the world is not a threat to a modern understanding of nationality but rather an enhancement of it: a connection with migrants’ origins which is to be respected and valued, and which does not lessen their Englishness in any way.
Archer’s arrival into the English team comes at a troubled time for national identity. Three years after the Brexit referendum, how do Englishness, Britishness and Europeanness relate to each other? How are we to respond to the resurgence of ethnic forms of nationalism in different parts of the globe?
Against this backdrop, the whole-hearted celebration of Archer as a foreign-born Englishman offers a powerful conception of nationality which is not lessened by overlapping identities but which is meaningful, valuable, and to be cherished by cricket fans and non-cricket fans alike.
I watched with awe as Archer’s deliveries whistled past the heads of Australian batsmen before sending their stumps into disarray. Archer incorporates the most powerful and effective elements of his West Indian cricketing heritage with a highly successful use of English bowling conditions. As a friend of mine said breathlessly as Archer came running in to bowl, ‘I feel like we are watching the birth of a real English legend.’