These were circumstances that, ordinarily, make cricketers question their life choices. A biting, blustery day on the South Coast, with a ragged wind harassing the bowlers in their run-ups and the batters in their stances. The first-team squad went through their paces for a while in the nets behind the square, but not a soul in the flats overlooking the 1st Central County Ground bothered to poke their heads out to observe the twos going about their business – Sussex versus Surrey in the Second XI County Championship.
The sun made infrequent appearances, but only of the “look what you could have won” variety. Slip fielders stood stiff-limbed in the cordon, hands jammed deep into pockets, When people talk of four-day cricket being pushed to the margins of the summer, these are the clichéd conditions that the mind’s eye conjures up.
And yet, these were also the conditions in which one of the most sought-after cricketers on the planet was making his comeback from injury. For a man who spends most of his professional life on the road – or, in the current climate, in hotel-rooms of varying degrees of solitude – home, aka Hove, is most definitely where Jofra Archer’s heart is.
As if to prove the point, Archer’s sea-front flat – a short stroll from the ground – has featured in the headlines more often than most sportsmen’s homes in recent months, firstly due to his unsanctioned detour during last summer’s West Indies series, which caused him to miss the second Test at Emirates Old Trafford, and latterly due to the infamous fish-tank incident in January which left a shard of glass embedded in his right middle finger.
And now Hove is where Archer has been undergoing his rehab in recent weeks, after a recurrence of his right elbow problems caused his withdrawal from this year’s IPL. But given the news that broke shortly before the start of play on Tuesday, you suspect that Archer might have been quietly grateful for an excuse to duck out of the unfolding drama in India, for all that he professes his loyalty to the tournament that has played such a significant role in his career.
Had it not been for the decision, taken late last month, to withdraw Archer from the entirety of this year’s IPL, he would almost certainly have been caught in the maelstrom this week – effectively swapping an eight-day quarantine period on arrival in Delhi for a further ten days’ isolation back in the UK, with maybe not even a solitary outing for Rajasthan Royals in between whiles, now that the tournament’s bubble has burst and the players are scattering (with varying degrees of difficulty) for home.
Archer was visibly fed up of the bio-secure lifestyle during England’s tour of India earlier this year – no player spent longer in hotel rooms that his 90-plus days during last summer’s contests in Southampton and Manchester, while he’s also had stints in South Africa in December (albeit truncated due to another bubble breach) and in the UAE at the last IPL in November, where he was named the tournament’s MVP for his haul of 20 wickets at an economy rate of 6.55.
Instead, his injury has given him a chance to take stock, and build back into his workload, with two spells a day in the nets under the regular scrutiny of Jon Lewis, England’s bowling coach, and Craig de Weymarn, the physio. Writing in the Daily Mail this week, Archer reckoned he was already back to bowling at full pace after starting his comeback at 60-70 percent. Surrey’s reserves will find out soon enough quite how accurate that claim actually is.
For the first day of action, however, Archer was made to play the waiting game. It was 70 overs before he got his first taste of action with the bat – almost enough time to complete an IPL double-header – as Sussex’s innings was carried first by Marcus Campopiano, an alumnus of the nearby Hurstpierpoint College, who set the day’s platform with 66 from 99 balls, and latterly by Oliver Carter, a 19-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman, who belied a previous highest 2nd XI score of 15 with a fluent and compact 110, studded with 14 fours and a pulled six behind square off Conor McKerr.
Archer’s innings, when it finally got underway at the fall of the sixth wicket in the early afternoon, proved to be a perfect paint-by-numbers amalgam of white-ball flamboyance and exaggeratedly dour red-ball dead-batting. His 46-ball 35 including three fours and two sixes – both of them heaved over the short square boundary – and he was dropped twice in an over too, including a flying edge at second slip that brought him out in a sheepish grin as he jogged through for a bonus single off McKerr.
His luck ran out at the third time of asking, however, as Laurie Evans at gully swallowed an open-faced steer off the seamer James Taylor, and Archer trooped back to the pavilion, followed not long afterwards by the second cloud-burst of the day.
As prologues go, it was a promising exhibition from a player easing his way back to match fitness. Archer’s levers certainly seemed to be functioning without inhibition, as he extended his elbows into a brace of fierce drives over long-off against the spin of Will Jacks, and if he perhaps seems a touch more inhibited than he had been in his previous appearance for Sussex’s second XI – when he took six wickets and smashed 108 from 99 balls against Gloucestershire at Woodmancote in 2019 – then he’s also got a longer lead-in before his next big date with destiny.
Back then, he had just a week to get himself ramped up for his Test debut against Australia at Lord’s. The same venue awaits this year as well, but with New Zealand’s visit getting underway on June 2, Archer’s still got licence to take it slowly as he returns to the fast lane.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket