Matches between touring sides and English counties were memorable in their own right not so long ago. Large crowds would flock to see whether their local heroes could take down international stars a peg or two. Counties would field their strongest team for a fixture that – before the cash cow that is Twenty20 – would almost certainly be their most lucrative of the year.
When the Pakistanis arrived at Hove in 2016 to prepare for their four-Test series against England that was certainly not the case any more. Unless it was Australia or India in town, interest in such games had waned and as a sporting contest they had largely turned into glorified practice sessions. The drop in prestige explains why Sussex took to the field just eight hours after returning from a game in Cardiff the previous night.
Yet that crazy scheduling opened the door for an unknown by the name of Jofra Chioke Archer to make his first-class debut. In the blink of an eye, the 21-year-old went from total obscurity to being one of the most exciting prospects in the game. To say he hasn’t looked back since is an understatement.
The smattering of spectators who braved a chilly morning on the south coast were still settling into the deckchairs at the Cromwell Road end when Archer offered the first indication of his phenomenal natural ability. Only the true diehards who had perhaps caught a glimpse of him playing club or second-team cricket had an inkling of what was to come as he sauntered up the slope from the Sea end to deliver his first ball to Shan Masood.
Archer did not take a wicket – he had to wait another 10 deliveries for that milestone – but the speed he generated with the minimum of effort was truly startling. Those not still queuing for coffee or perusing the newspaper turned to the person next to them to check they had also witnessed it. By the time Archer had completed his first over they were busy googling his name in a bid to discover where Sussex had unearthed such a player.
It was genuinely one of those wow moments that are so rare in sport. We may be familiar with Archer generating express pace from such a languid action now, but four years ago it was a bolt from the blue. Every great athlete has to start somewhere but usually their debuts are accompanied by a tidal wave of hype or preceded by record-breaking achievements during glittering junior careers. Archer appeared from nowhere – if you discount three caps for West Indies Under-19s – but it was instantly obvious he was destined for the top.
Archer claimed his maiden wicket in his second over, slanting a ball across Masood and finding the edge. His second victim, Mohammad Hafeez, had no answer to a ball that nipped back and crashed into his pads.
After such an unexpected opening the game returned to script as the Pakistanis piled on the runs and we wondered whether Archer’s opening blitz had been a false dawn. Any doubts were emphatically wiped away when he removed Misbah-ul-Haq and Azhar Ali in quick succession with the new ball.
The Pakistanis closed the opening day on 363 for five, making Archer’s figures of four for 49 even more outstanding. His victims were no mugs either, as they had amassed 53 international hundreds between them. The game petered out into an inevitable draw but not before Archer dismissed Hafeez again – the only wicket to fall in Pakistan’s second innings.
Archer’s rise since has been phenomenal. He did not even have a professional contract when he lined up against the Pakistanis but in less than four years he has been named as one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year, having helped England lift the World Cup and starred in the Ashes the previous summer. Those at Hove for his debut only wondered why it took so long.