Archer was bowling in England kit for the first time since March 2021, opening the attack for the Lions in this three-day game. The purpose of as close to a competitive tune-up for the main squad ahead of their tour of Pakistan was primary, even if the Test XIII bullied their way to 501 for 7 in just 79 overs before calling it quits at 5pm, half an hour before the mooted close of play.
But gauging Archer’s progress ahead of a managed return in the New Year was very much the focus of Wednesday. And across two controlled spells at the start of both the first and the second session – five overs, one maiden, 0 for 23; four overs, 0 for 15 – there were plenty of reasons for cautious optimism. Having ticked along well in the Lions camp in Dubai which began at the start of November, he arrived in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday with talk he was back to his brisk ways, to the extent that some of the Test batters were wary of what he might do to them in this bout. Crawley’s blow was a realisation of those fears.
Archer’s familiar shuffle and whipped wrist remain intact, suggesting the long-standing elbow injury and stress fracture of the back that has kept him out of competitive cricket since July 2021 continue to shrink in the rearview mirror. Best of all, an ECB speed gun on site clocked him at 90mph/145kph.
“They say you can add 3mph [5kph] to that,” Crawley said, a few hours after his ears had stopped ringing and consulted teammates and coaches encouraged by Archer’s output on the clock and in person. “So he’s bowling good pace!
“When he pitches up, he’s obviously still quick but he’s nowhere near as quick when he’s bowling short. Jof’s bouncers certainly feel a lot quicker and I didn’t really manage to get out of the way of that first one and that’s just the way he is. He’s got such a great wrist.
“He always bowls quick, Jof. He obviously got me in the first over and it won’t be the last time I’m sure. He’s a top bowler and it’s good to see him back in the field.”
Archer went short again in his third over of that opening burst, drawing a top edge from Crawley that flew over the fine-leg boundary for six. However, he steadied himself and strummed his way to 96 with some domineering strokeplay that had him unbeaten on 91 at lunch. Just as Crawley looked to be rounding on three figures, a risky single ended his stay. Archer was the man to strike, of course: on his toes at mid off to gather cleanly and throw down the stumps.
“I’ve just checked it there and it doesn’t look out to me,” protested Crawley, tongue in cheek. “It was certainly close, with the standing umpire adjudging the decision without being square onto the wicket. “He obviously thought it was out, he’s the one that counts.”
A full comeback for Archer could come in January, when England play three rearranged ODIs in South Africa. “I’ve watched him like everyone else and he’s an excitement machine,” Matthew Mott, England’s white-ball coach, said on Tuesday. “We wish him well with his recovery: it’s been going great, apparently. We’ll definitely welcome him back.”
A 69 not out in the final innings of a tumultuous Test summer for Crawley reinforced the belief the management have in him, and to see him operate in a similar, attacking manner some months later will no doubt fuel the idea he has turned a corner. “I feel in good touch at the moment,” he said. “I feel good about my game and I finished the season well and I’ve carried that on.
“I had a good break which is important and I had an idea of how I wanted to play and the mentality that we’re trying bat with here and I’m trying to buy into that a bit more and be positive. I’ve been trying to be positive, I think that’s suited me well with getting in better positions.”
Alex Lees, his top-order partner during the summer, was the one who eventually got the chop, overlooked for the tour fo Pakistan with Ben Duckett and Keaton Jennings given the nod. That Duckett opened up – Jennings slotted in at No. 5 – reinforced that he is the preferred first choice. He managed 28 before flicking Tom Abell to square leg where Jack Carson took an excellent diving catch.
“It’s good,” said Crawley on the understanding he had with Duckett during their 16.5 overs and 78 runs together. “He’s a lovely player and we’re very different so it should work well. As long as we keep rotating strike, which he did really well today actually, then we’re going to be quite hard to bowl to, I reckon, because he hits very different shots to me.”
The original idea was to potentially have the legspinning allrounder act as a glorified net bowler, ultimately spending the winter undergoing an apprenticeship of sorts. Now, he has an opportunity to break into the XI.
The 18-year-old from Leicestershire certainly did not do his immense talent and reputation justice with eight overs rinsed for 73 runs, with no wicket to polish those eye-watering figures. Nevertheless, as he walked off at the end to congratulations from his soon-to-be international team-mates, coaches and even director of men’s cricket Rob Key; a productive first day closed with a feel-good story.
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo