No.5 in Wisden’s men’s ODI spell of 2023 is Jofra Archer’s 6-40 that helped England beat South Africa by 59 runs at Kimberley in February. Ben Gardner looks back at a terrific display of fast bowling from a superstar who played only one game in the year.

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Wisden’s men’s ODI spells of 2023, No.5: Jofra Archer – 6-40

South Africa v England
3rd ODI, England tour of South Africa 2023
Diamond Oval, Kimberley, February 1

If there were an award for the highest ‘words written about them to cricket matches played’ ratio, Jofra Archer would claim it for 2023. He played six IPL games, four ODIs, three T20Is and – bizarrely – one unauthorised game for his old school team. But his injury status was never far from the headlines. He’d turn up at an England net session and rattle everyone in the nets. He’d bowl left-arm, spin and seam, and that would kickstart the conversation. He was England’s one World Cup travelling reserve, even though he wasn’t fit himself. Wait, no, he was just there for his own rehab. There’s criticism of even talking about what he was or could be again, for fear of heaping on pressure only to be disappointed again. There’s never a timescale on a return, but always a hope that this is the time the comeback sticks.

Of course, he deserves all the hype. When he does take the field, all those struggles, all that pain and frustration melts away, overtaken by the smoothest of action, the charming smile, the wrist snap and the batter jumping. It looks so easy, but a look at the injury record reveals the toll. Is it all worth it?

For a few months at the start of the year, England fans, Mumbai Indians fans, any cricket fan with a soul dared to dream, and the highlight came at Kimberley. In his first game back, in the first ODI of January’s series against South Africa, Archer conceded 81. He rated himself about 80 per cent fit, and that was the issue. One in every five balls went for four or six even as he bowled more dots than any other England bowler. The good balls were still good, and it’s natural that there’s a bit of rust. There was no suggestion that the magic had gone.

Still, England were being careful, so he was rested for the second game. South Africa chased 343 with five balls to spare. The series was gone, and Archer came back for the dead rubber. England had four more runs to defend this time. Archer was kept away from the new ball. South Africa got off to a flier.

Again, Archer took some time to resume normal service. His first over was a good one, with Reeza Hendricks and Temba Bavuma hopping, but his first wicket was his most fortunate, Rassie van der Dussen seeing a touch of width but hitting straight to point. Three more boundaries were given up. By the end of four overs, Archer’s figures read 1-27.

When he was reintroduced, something had changed. South Africa were on top, 156-3 after 25 overs. Archer wrested the game back England’s way. In his first over back, he picked up a stereotypical modern ODI wicket. Fingers rolled over the top, banged in, miscued, and held onto. In his next over came a ball that would have graced any era, nipping back at high pace and taking David Miller’s inside edge. England were back on top. Another sharp, unhittable over follows. His second spell read 2-8 in three overs.

He came back for the 40th over with South Africa on top again: 73 needed off 66 with five wickets in hand, and Heinrich Klaasen playing his first significant innings of a stunning 2023. It took four balls for Archer to tilt things again, Klaasen holing out to deep square leg, the ball nowhere near going for six. In a flash, the game was done. Archer was too fast, too accurate for Wayne Parnell and Tabraiz Shamsi, hitting the stumps twice. The final spell read 3-5 in 13 balls. England had their first win in six games thanks to six from Archer. The other seamers took 1-149 between them. Three times he came in with South Africa edging ahead, and three times he pulled them back.

It feels worth it now to pore over the details, because when you witness greatness in such small quantities, what else is there to do? Archer would take five more wickets in two ODIs in Bangladesh, as England became the first side to win there since 2016. There was a smattering of stardust across the nine shortform games he played thereafter. Everyone was being careful. No one was getting ahead of themselves. And then came a recurrence of the elbow injury to rule him out for the summer, and then the year.

There will always be that hope. There is history, of Pat Cummins, who missed half a decade after his debut and then became one of the greats, and of plenty of other quicks, for whom stress fractures are a rite of passage. And there’s hope because of Archer himself, because when he does play, it looks the simplest thing in the world. The beauty hides the fragility, and the fragility only makes what we do see all the more beautiful.