The Cricketer: The Big Bash – Archer and Denly take Australia by storm

Isabelle Westbury reports on how the ‘British’ duo were signed as replacements with great success

There is something about defying expectations that suits the English. Label them favourites and they self-destruct. Make it clear from the outset that they are very much second best, however, and the English thrive.

English replacement players created a sensation in this season’s Big Bash League. Most notable was Jofra Archer, only selected by the Hobart Hurricanes to replace Tom Curran, a late call-up for the Ashes. It may seem far-fetched to label the Barbados-born former West Indies Under-19 bowling allrounder as English; Archer does however have a British passport and has repeatedly expressed his intent to play for his adopted nation.

Under ICC regulations he is eligible, but the more stringent ECB regulations, and perhaps the lure of T20 leagues abroad, mean that 2022 might be his first opportunity. More concerning for English cricket, though, is how few appeared to know that Archer has already been thriving – in county cricket. For those that did, his performances were no surprise. “As a Sussex fan I can tell you that the Archer Hype Train is the only train in Brighton which is never delayed,” commented one observer, late last season.

While Archer intends to bring his family down to Hove this summer with his newfound IPL wealth (he was sold at auction for around £800,000), there is another cricket family to welcome to the seaside – that of Jason Gillespie, the new Sussex coach. Happily, for them, he was also the man in charge of the Adelaide Strikers this season as they soared to BBL success, comfortably beating the Hobart Hurricanes by 25 runs in the final. Gillespie, deprived of some of his key players in both the semis and final, was instrumental in creating a smart squad of players who worked seamlessly together, at no point reliant on just one individual. Sussex will be hoping for more of the same.

Joe Denly, who last played for England almost eight years ago, was another replacement player whose stock has risen. Had he been playing for the Sydney Sixers at the start of their campaign rather than at the end, Denly’s final knock (72 not out off 45 balls) might not have been just to save his team from last place. Denly is too polite to voice this, having been plucked from Sydney club cricket for only the final four games, to replace England batsmen Jason Roy and Sam Billings.

“It has only been brief, but I’ve been very lucky to be fair,” acknowledges the Kent batsman, who featured in four wins, a contrast to the six losses that preceded his arrival. “I’ve always watched the BBL. It’s watched worldwide, as is the IPL and I think that the way they go about it and running it as an entertainment show is fantastic.”

So was it really just a case of right time, right place? “Last winter, when I was out here I was playing grade cricket and a similar kind of situation occurred,” explains Denly, the morning after his final match. While it did not come off that year, Denly stayed in touch with the Sixers’ chief executive Dominic Redmond, who swiftly turned to him on this occasion.

Roy’s average barely reached double figures, Denly’s was 73. Might a full season with the Sixers be on the cards for next year? “There’s nothing set in stone,” replies Denly, shrugging the question off with a polite laugh. “There were a few whispers around the changing room last night. I thoroughly enjoyed my time and I think that the guys enjoyed me being here. I’m sure that when I did first sign, a few of the lads might have been wondering what this signing was all about. It’s quite unusual I think for a Big Bash team to sign anyone who is not playing professional cricket at the time.”

Despite Denly’s humility, there are, in fact, quite a few English players on the BBL circuit, many of whom are out of favour with the England set-up. Many have thrived. Luke Wright has been with the Melbourne Stars since the beginning and is bowing out as their record run- scorer, with 1,479; Michael Lumb was a Sixers favourite for many years and Tim Bresnan has now played two seasons for the Perth Scorchers. Not to mention KP’s love affair with the Melbourne Stars.

“The feedback that I was getting [from the English players] was how amazing it is, how good a competition it is, playing in front of packed houses every week,” enthuses Denly. “It’s only positive stuff . It’s very similar to the set-up in international cricket. Obviously the standard of international cricket is probably a little bit better, but just coping with the whole competition and not getting that overwhelmed by the crowds is a huge thing. The crowds that they get in – I think that that’s probably the biggest thing, as we are playing in front of 20, 30, 40,000 people, compared to in England where you get 7,000–10,000.”

This is not the first time Australian cricket has been compared to internationals. Before the Women’s BBL was even launched, England captain Charlotte Edwards heralded Australia’s state competition as being “as close to international cricket as I’ve played in a domestic set-up”. It applies to the men too.

This is an important observation if we are interested in the development of England’s best young players. In football, England are perceived to suffer from “the development gap”, a term used by Ferran Soriano, Manchester City’s chief executive, as one of the reasons for England’s poor international record. Most major European clubs have reserve teams that play in their country’s lower, but professional, divisions – not in a separate league, as English teams do. He believes that this deprives England’s next generation of experiencing the pressure they will need to deal with if they reach the next level. Like a lot of county cricket, age- group games are played in empty stadiums and fail to provide “enough competitive tension”.

Without the pressure and experience of playing on the platform that a tournament like the IPL or BBL provides, that transition to international cricket, should a player make it, is that much harder. “I have no doubt that the franchise tournament will change the standard of T20 played in England,” says Denly. “It is obviously going to attract a lot of people from overseas to come to play and we are going to get the best crop of English players playing in that T20 competition. There are going to be quite a few that miss out but I think for English cricket, it’s going to be a good thing.”

The BBL, in fact, has become such a success that for a number of years in Australia a debate has raged as to whether it is too successful, detracting from the Test matches played throughout the tournament.

This year, with the Ashes in town, the tournament saw television and spectator figures down for the first time in the BBL’s history, but in years with less salubrious international fixtures, it has dominated. The ECB is wary of this dichotomy and will be keen to ensure that the new franchise tournament, plus the T20 Blast, does not detract from England’s seemingly steadfast relationship with Test cricket. Still, the normalisation of cricket on free-to-air television, every night of the summer holidays, means that cricket has become a staple of Australia’s sporting calendar.

For now, though, Denly must return from the sunny confines of Australia to the wintry landscape of pre-season England. It is not all bad, though, after four days with the family he will have jetted o to Antigua for the Kent pre- season. Not like the old days then.

• A version of this article was originally published in The Cricketer in its March 2018 issue.

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