Jofra Archer says it will be “just another game” when England play West Indies tomorrow. But how can it be?
For Archer, the motivation could not be clearer: a World Cup grudge match against the nation which snubbed him at Under-19 level, against the men who could have been his West Indies teammates. It’s a “here’s what you could have won” moment. And on this front, England have clearly won. As far as West Indies are concerned, the desire will be to show they have moved on – that, however good Archer is and may prove to be, they’re fine without him.
England coach Trevor Bayliss’s assessment is one shared generally: “Both sides of the argument would like to gain the upper-hand.” Except, well, there is no argument as such. Certainly not between Archer or the players that will take the field in maroon.
Invariably, the lament has been that Archer should not be playing for West Indies’ opponents on Friday. That his opportunity was instigated in part by another who they say should – Sussex and England teammate Chris Jordan – adds an extra degree of apoplexy to the jilted party.
Indeed, that apoplexy is shared by West Indies chief executive Jonny Grave. While accepting of Archer’s move and wishing him well, Grave had this to say back in November: “I hope no other West Indian cricketers follow that path and hope it doesn’t lead to counties doing their talent ID in the Caribbean, taking our players into the public school system and then on to offering them lucrative long-term county contracts and then possibly on to playing for England.” And this, fundamentally, is where Archer’s peers disagree.
Of Archer’s “U-19 Class of 2014” within the West Indies squad are Shimron Hetmyer, Nicholas Pooran and Fabian Allen. Another squad member who hails from Barbados, Carlos Brathwaite, has actively championed Archer on social media since 2016. Perhaps the region’s most talismanic leaders in recent times, Darren Sammy, has regularly fought Archer’s case on and off the record.
It is important not to lose sight of the basic facts in Archer’s unique case. He felt hurt at being spurned for a spot in the U-19 West Indies squad for the 2014 World Cup – a team which lost at the quarterfinal stage – even when everyone involved knew he was good enough to be there. Even now, the reasons for his non-inclusion are something of a mystery. Nepotism is often sighted without reference to the beneficiary.
An offer to play club cricket in England in 2016 was forthcoming, but not without a British passport from his father and the backing of his family, including a supporting step-father. The move across the Atlantic was much smoother than it might have been.
Ask around and players and administrators involved in cricket in the Caribbean at the time will tell you Archer made the right decision. “Speak to anyone who is rational or thinks about it subjectively, they would have no difficulty with the choice he has made,” said one source who was working at the West Indies Cricket Board at the time of Archer’s about-turn.
The options available to a West Indian cricketer are skewed slightly by personal circumstance. While it is true for any professional athlete that their first and subsequent central contracts are as much about themselves as their families and others depending on them, the economics of the Caribbean exacerbate whatever conundrum there might be.
At the base level, opportunities for youngsters in the Caribbean are limited on a few fronts. Even parents with the best of intentions can be hamstrung by the cost of sending their kids to school on a regular basis through something as seemingly trivial as regular bus fares. Invariably, sport represents a shot at a scholarship.
“For many Caribbean youngsters, sports such as athletics and cricket are seen as a possible way out of whatever difficulties they are facing,” says Michael Hall, who has held office on both sides of the fence as chief cricket operations officer for WICB and CEO of the players’ association. “It’s not a coincidence that many of West Indies’ brightest cricketers over the years have come from, shall we say, disadvantaged backgrounds. There are exceptions. Perhaps one of our greatest, Brian Lara, you wouldn’t say he came from ‘abject poverty’. But he would be one of the exceptions of the rule.”
But for West Indian cricketers, even success and national selection comes with complications. There are case studies of players who make it and drag others up with them, and almost all are untold.
Take, for example, the recent case of Shannon Gabriel. When the Trinidad fast bowler was investigated for on-field comments he made to England captain Joe Root during the recent West Indies-England Test series in January. Those behind the scenes had their fingers crossed for Gabriel because any forthcoming fine or, worse, a ban from playing, would not only affect him, but a number of friends and family who relied on his charity.
Concessions were made internally at the WICB to fight his corner, especially as the 31-year old cannot rely upon earnings from Twenty20 leagues or even the national ODI set-up, despite the fact he had been picked for an upcoming bout with England. An apology was forthcoming. Unfortunately, so too was a four-match ODI ban.
Perhaps though, the most telling recent story of a player lending assistance to those around him occurred as a knock-on effect of T20 making the game more meritocratic. In 2009, Chris Gayle signed his first bumper Indian Premier League contract with Kolkata Knight Riders. For the franchise, he was a marquee signing. For the IPL, here was their own Atlas to hold up the next 10 years of the league. For Gayle, it was the seed money to invest in his burgeoning personal brand. And for his Jamaican teammate and friend Marlon Samuels, a godsend.
After playing what he thought were his final Tests, ODIs and T20Is in 2008, Samuels despised everything about the game. What became of him over the following few years is open to speculation, but whoever in professional cricket you speak to will cede these weren’t happy times for the all-rounder. However, once Gayle had received his money from that first IPL season, he set aside a chunk for Samuels, sat him down and impressed on him one very important point: no matter what his grievances were, no matter what distractions there were, cricket certainly could allow him a good living.
Buoyed by Gayle’s generosity and guidance, Samuels got it together and, well, the rest is history. By 2011, he had returned with a vengeance in all three formats. Five years later, he had two World T20 titles-with man of the match awards from both finals-and a Wisden Cricketer of the Year gong to his name. In Twenty20 leagues around the world he plied a lucrative trade.
On a micro-economic level, the Caribbean Premier League has been doing its bit to channel the financial clout of cricket in the region. Each franchise must pick two upcoming players on USD 10,000 or USD 7,500 contracts to ensure, at the very least, there is a production line of younger talents-players benefitting from a system that has long benefitted from them.
The trickle-down effects of this new cricket economy in the region are many and varied: younger players use hotel rooms to share their dream life with childhood friends of modest means; high-profile local stars badger officials to furnish their families and friends with tickets, and, in some cases, Cricbuzz has discovered, gather extra tickets to on-sell and collect supplementary income. It is from a financial model that richly remunerates a select few superstars, while offering precarious rewards for their apprentices, that Jofra Archer emerged.
Grander paydays may come. Backed by The Times of India, America Cricket Enterprises has won the rights to the upcoming US T20 League. Invariably, it could lead to more payers from the Caribbean moving to mainland America to earn a better living. In his new role as the tournament operations director of the CPL, Michael Hall’s has come full circle in seeing a player pool desperately trying to make ends meet who now, at the very least, have more than one path. And while he is wary of a potential talent drain, he understands the needs of a region lauded as a tropical paradise, but whose cricketers are treated as mercenaries.
“Circumstances in the region are not going to change,” laments Hall. “The more opportunities these guys can find to make a living off of cricket, the better. Notwithstanding what fans might feel is ‘disloyal’ and so on. At the end of the day, if they’re honest with themselves, they have to accept these guys are thinking about their own future and that of their families.”
Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and we could pontificate that Archer would have thrived no matter where he made his cricketing home. As it happens, he worked his way into a set-up with the opportunity and infrastructure to develop his talents. With an Ashes series on the horizon and the potential of a million-pound ECB central contract as he heads into a full winter programme of international cricket, it’s safe to say, even at 24, he has made the most of life’s choices.
In the grand scheme of things, Jonny Graves’s words are ones to heed. The economic disparity between even Test playing nations is too stark to ensure the format is a fair fight. But, while Caribbean loyalists push their sons and daughters to embrace new-world opportunities within the sport, how can they turn around and blame a player like Archer for securing his and his family’s future?
After all, if you can do right by yourself and the ones you love, who’s to say you’re wrong. (Cricbuzz)