Therapy dogs can be found providing comfort to everyone from stressed students to nervous flyers but they are not necessarily associated with elite sport. Yet if England win back the Ashes this summer their success may owe a debt of gratitude to the role played by five American pitbulls in helping Jofra Archer return to fitness after 18 months out of the game.
Archer is in Bloemfontein as part of England’s 14-man squad preparing for a three-match One-Day International series against South Africa which means a great deal more to the hosts than the tourists with Temba Bavuma’s team still desperately clinging to hopes of automatic qualification for the World Cup in India in October.
But for Archer the series also has significance, providing the chance of a first England appearance since March 2021 after spending most of the last year “shovelling lots of poo and feeding lots of dogs”. The 27-year-old revealed that to help him cope with the loneliness and rigours of long-term rehab after a career-threatening elbow injury he “went a bit crazy probably a month after I got back to Barbados, I got about five dogs in the space of four weeks”.
When he wasn’t walking his canine companions on the beach he was “shouting at the television” watching his England teammates win the T20 World Cup: “The most frustrating part was not being able to help,” he said.
But the dogs helped him cope and says he never doubted he would return to his best: “I know whenever I’m fully fit, I don’t think there’s much that can stop me, it’s just a matter of when that was going to be. Luckily everything happened a lot sooner – well, I wish it happened a lot sooner – but I’m not going to be upset or bitter about how the timing’s been. I think everything happens for a reason and I guess there’s a reason I’m here in South Africa right now,.
“There’s no reason to look back, I’ve done my time and I’m here now. I had the best time being injured, I had stuff to keep me going, my friends, my family, the gym. I don’t think I wasted any days. I’m happy.”
Having started his comeback with three games for MI Cape Town in the country’s new T20 League, the SA20, over the past couple of weeks, the silky action, slippery pace and deceptive skills all appeared to be undiminished by his leave of absence. But even the smoothest of fast bowlers feel pain.
“It [may have] looked fantastic but on the inside, I’m still a bit stiff and trying to take some of the rust away. I’d probably say I’m about 80%. Just some fine-tuning now, more discipline than actual cricket stuff.”
The surest sign of his confidence was that he was happy to talk about what lies ahead – notably the Ashes and the defence of England’s 50-over World Cup title. “Hopefully it can be a repeat of 2019. We’ve got the World Cup and an Ashes in the same year so more of the same, please. It’s just been good to play cricket and not have to worry about if my body’s going to give way,” Archer said.
Whatever talk there may have been about becoming a white-ball specialist has not been coming from the man himself, especially after watching his close friend Ben Stokes lead the team to nine wins in their past 10 Tests.
“It is an exciting prospect to think about playing with the guys again especially with the brand of cricket they are playing which is very exciting,” he said. “But I think I need to spend the next two, three, four months fine-tuning the body and making myself a bit more resilient. Let me sort that out first then I can look forward to holding the red ball in my hand again.
“There’s not that much cricket till the Ashes but you can’t play every game so you just manage it, play maybe two games then one off, or three games then one off, however the medical team sees fit.
“Overs are overs and you train and bowl until you feel good. I might have to do some extra bowling but that is absolutely fine because I want to play in the Ashes, so I’m going to have to do all the hard yards to tick those boxes.”
And how will the dogs cope without him? “They’ll be fine. It’s their house, I just live there sometimes.”