(Photo: Getty Images)
By Derek Pringle
Economic migrants, godsends, opportunists, diamonds, leeches – these are the various descriptions that have been levelled at foreign-born players who have qualified to play cricket for England over the years.
From Graeme Hick to Jofra Archer, the latest traveller on that potentially rocky road, the journey has been fraught with perils both real and imagined. It is rarely straightforward, even for those who succeed, and any lasting acceptance is usually hard won.
Archer, who was born in Barbados but has a British father and passport, joined Sussex two years ago on the recommendation of Chris Jordan. Since then, he has wowed everyone from the Hobart Hurricanes to the Rajasthan Royals, who signed him for £800,000 to play in this year’s Indian Premier League, for his mix of athletic fast bowling and aggressive batting.
With his easy pace, from a good, high action, and with his sheer dynamism in the field, Archer, 22, is the kind of player who ticks every box in each format – which makes him very hot property indeed.
Happily for England, he has stated that he wants to play for them. Unhappily for both them and Archer, he cannot qualify until November 2022, following rules brought in by the England and Wales Cricket Board in 2012.
Those new rules demand that he completes seven years of UK residency, which is what the Zimbabwe-born Hick had to do as well to play for England 34 years ago, arguably with damaging consequences, at least to his international prospects.
Seven years is an eternity in modern sport and Archer may well suffer the same impatience as Hick waiting to tread the biggest stage. Yet the cricketing landscape has changed so much, with all the T20 leagues he can exploit, that he will not be financially deprived which, in turn, should help to keep any frustration in check.
Nor is Archer likely to experience the ambivalence that greeted Hick’s long wait, with English cricket broadly split between those who felt Hick would be a welcome asset, and those who believed he was a mercenary playing fast and loose with his birthright.
I remember the Hick saga playing out. He joined Worcestershire in 1984 and basically tore up county cricket and its bowlers for the next eight seasons before becoming qualified to play for England in 1991. Unlike South African-born players like Allan Lamb and Robin Smith, who also qualified to play for England, Hick had not been denied international cricket. Zimbabwe did not yet have Test status when he took the decision to qualify for England, but they did play in World Cups.
Yet, a bigger master was not the only motivation. England wanted Hick, at least as much if not more than he wanted them, and was clearly helped on his path with a nod and a wink by the powers that be.
Naturally, that quid pro quo did not sit well with everyone and I remember attending a county captains’ meeting at Lord’s (in lieu of Graham Gooch), and Mike Gatting voicing his concerns about making foreigners ‘English’ just because they had special talents.
Others, though not all, at the meeting agreed with him but were told in no uncertain terms by the TCCB man present (the fore-runner of the ECB), that England needed players of Hick’s quality and that it was imperative we make him one of our own asap, provided we do so within the rules.
When Hick finally did get his big chance, against the West Indies in 1991, the level of expectation, having been ratcheted gradually upwards for the past seven years, was so overwhelming that only several hundreds in the series would have satisfied it.
Instead, with the pressure on, and the West Indies bowlers eager to cut down England’s big new hope, Hick flopped, making 75 runs in four Tests at an average of 10.7 – not what anyone had in mind after all the hoopla. To add to the ignominy, he was dropped for the final Test, the boy wonder suddenly discovering things were not so straightforward in the grown-up world of international cricket.
A man who gave little away, emotionally, nobody was quite sure how, after six seasons of immense bounty, Hick would cope with such a severe setback. To help him, England’s selectors gave him every chance to succeed when the team travelled to New Zealand that winter, playing him in all the warm-up games prior to the Tests. I cannot say if there was a directive to the team management saying that Hick cannot be allowed to fail, but it would have felt like it to those competing with him for a batting spot, such as Mark Ramprakash, England’s current batting coach.
Ramprakash played in all five of the Tests against the West Indies and had showed promise and poise, something that had eluded Hick, who’d looked intimidated by the West Indies’ pace attack. Against the gentler offerings of New Zealand, though, he only really got two innings (to Hick’s five) to state his case and failed to make it. Frustrated, after one of those opportunities saw him chop-on for 13, Ramprakash smashed his bat into tiny pieces in the dressing-room. Yet, his instincts were spot on as Hick got to play in all three Tests while he carried the drinks.
Interestingly, both men dominated county cricket, each making over 100 first-class hundreds over long careers. Neither, though, did their justice talent for England. Hick played 62 Tests and averaged 31.32 with six hundreds, while Ramprakash played 52 Tests and averaged 27.32 with just two hundreds.
Of course, the big ‘what if’ is what might have occurred had Ramprakash been given the selectors’ backing in New Zealand and Hick had been made to wait a bit longer for his second chance, as on such small matters do big events sometimes grow? But like most hypotheticals, we shall never know.
Happily for Archer, he is unlikely to feel the same level of expectation as he will be a wealthy man by the time he becomes qualified to play for England in a little over four years’ time.
With money satisfying most urges felt by the players, he may not feel he even needs to pursue an international career, providing he stays injury free and the T20 gigs keep coming.
Young heads are quickly turned and if England want him as badly as they wanted Hick, they will need to shorten his qualification period. Sometimes a person can wait so long to find glory it never comes.