On Saturday, England fast bowler Jofra Archer delivered a ball to batsman Steve Smith that flew out of his hand at 92.4mph, bounced off the pitch at Lord’s and struck the Australian on the side of the head.
It was just one of a string of searing deliveries from Archer, some of which reached speeds in excess of 96mph. As England and Australia prepare to meet again in the third Ashes test at Headingley from Thursday (without Smith, ruled out by concussion), the Barbados-born 24-year-old fast bowler is the centre of attention.
Other bowlers who have reached such frightening speeds tend to have violent, almost explosive bowling actions – back injuries and stress fractures are a big problem. Archer, by contrast, has a much more relaxed style – with a relatively short run-up. So how is he able to bowl so quickly?
It’s all about efficiency, says Ian Pont, head coach at the National Fast Bowling Academy. Archer is tall, but still relatively slight compared to some fast bowlers. However, his action is very efficient at transferring energy from the run-up into the ball through what’s known as the kinetic chain. “We do have this myth that you’ve got to be big and strong with lots of muscles,” says Pont. “Jofra Archer is very smooth and relaxed – he has rhythm and coordination and timing.”
There are four key indicators of speed, says Pont, all related to how efficiently energy is transferred through the body as a bowler runs in, jumps, lands, releases the ball and follows through. The first is keeping the front leg straight, which Archer does very well. “If you jump off a low wall you bend your legs to absorb the energy,” Pont explains – bending your leg while bowling means the energy isn’t being transferred.
The second and third determinants of speed relate to how quickly a bowler can rotate their body. Archer has “very fast hips” which help create torque. Some bowlers, such as the Sri Lankan Lasith Malinga, rely heavily on this hip rotation to generate speed and have what’s referred to as a more ‘slingy’ action.
That torque feeds energy into Archer’s arm speed, which is one of the major contributors to his pace. He has long arms, and good separation of movement between his hips and arms creates a catapult effect that amplifies the speed. “He’s very relaxed so his muscles are elastic which means they stretch and contract,” says Pont. “The energy travels from the floor all the way through the leg and into the cricket ball itself.” The final element – and one that Archer shares with the world’s best golfers – is a flick of the wrist as he releases the ball that adds an extra burst of speed.
But that’s only half the story. Batsmen seem to find Archer particularly difficult to play against – and have an especially hard time picking out bouncers. At high speeds, batsmen don’t actually have time to react to where the ball is going and have to guess based on the body position and movements of the bowler – the best batsman are able to do this more quickly, and therefore get themselves into position to play a shot more easily.
Normally, the point at which the ball is released offers a tell-tale clue as to the length of a ball – the later it’s released the shorter the ball, and the higher it will bounce. But with Archer, batsmen can’t seem to read those cues. “They can’t pick where the ball is being released from,” says Cathy Craig, an expert in the science of movement and the CEO of sports-tech company INCISIV. “That could be from his bowling action being so fast, or it could be the fluidity of the movement.”
Ravi Bopara, a former England batsman, has said that the regularity of Archer’s action makes it difficult. “He stays upright at the crease regardless of what he’s bowling – yorker, length ball, bouncer, whatever,” he told Sky recently. “Most bowlers, when they are about to deliver a bouncer, have a drop in the head as they approach the stumps but he doesn’t do that. So, as a batsman, you have no idea what to expect.”
Pont likens each individual’s bowling style to a thumbprint: everyone has one, but they’re all different. Coaches have worked with fast bowlers to modify their actions to reduce the risk of injuries and prolong careers, but Pont says Archer’s smooth and straight action should stand him in good stead in that regard. Injuries happen when a bowler’s movements aren’t aligned, and the energy they generate from their run-up doesn’t transfer smoothly to the ball – because their front leg isn’t straight, or their body is twisted, for example.
Archer’s action is all the more remarkable because he developed it without the formal coaching structure enjoyed by his England contemporaries. That may have been to his benefit, Craig argues. “It’s quite a natural way he found his technique,” she says. “You have to trust your own brain to find the best way.”
He learnt to bowl from his stepdad on a bumpy patch of grass next to a graveyard in Barbados, with a tennis ball wrapped in tape. “One day, he just clicked. I was stood facing him in the nets and in four consecutive balls, he clean bowled me,” said Patrick Waithe, his stepdad, recently. “It was like his bowling had been plugged into the mains and 240 volts were running through him.”
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