Selectors need to plan ahead and break up Anderson and Broad
➤ England have to bed in pair’s successors in time for Ashes ➤ Australia will be no place for veterans losing their pace
It is time to move on. With only 16 months until the first Test against Australia in Brisbane – and the Ashes still the measure by which English Test cricket is judged – England need a pair of opening bowlers far more penetrative than the James Anderson and Stuart Broad of recent years.
Their achievements have been luminous, historic, unique for England bowlers. Their records are amazing – 1,069 Test wickets combined – but not in the past few years, when their strike rates have declined, although, as shrewd old pros, they have known how to disguise it.
Where will England be in the next Ashes series if their opening bowlers take fewer than six wickets per Test between them, as Anderson and Broad have averaged in the past couple of years? England will not take 20 wickets in a Test, that is what will happen, and they will not win a match, which has been the case in three of their past four series in Australia.
Anderson retains his killer instinct and, unless illness struck overnight, his place for the opening Test today. His experience is, of course, unmatched by any pace bowler in the annals of Test cricket, as he leads the all-time list with 584 wickets. And even though his penetration – that extra bit of nip – has declined, he has become even more accurate, to the point where one would like to ask the data analyst in the sky (rather than the one at Sky) whether England have ever had a more accurate pace bowler.
The relevant facts, however, are these. On day one of this first Test against West Indies, Anderson will be 37 years and 344 days old, and by the Brisbane Test he will be 39. He
has broken down in two of his past three Tests – at Edgbaston last summer and Cape Town last winter. In his past eight Tests, since the autumn of 2018, he has taken 20 wickets – an average of 2½ per game – and his strike rate has been 63: one wicket every 10½ overs, which, if replicated through the team, means that England take more than 100 overs to dismiss their opponents.
Since Broad had the last of his magic spells in Johannesburg at the start of 2016, he has often said he has felt another is round the corner. It was a sight that will endure in England’s folk-memory: his heels kicking up high; the ball zipping through the defence of right-handers or, in latter years, left-handers; right arm raised as he runs through to celebrate the lbw with the slips and keeper without waiting for the umpire to raise a finger.
The relevant facts, however, are these. In his 47 Tests since Johannesburg, Broad has taken 152 wickets – 3.2 wickets per game on average. If he and Anderson take six
wickets per Test, that leaves 14 to be taken by other bowlers – without the benefit of a new ball – if England are to win. Yet both are such craftsmen, knowing exactly when to bowl, that both have lowered their Test averages during their decline, thus masking it.
Selectors, like politicians, prefer short-term solutions to long-term gains: keep Anderson to lead the attack, start this series against West Indies with a win, settle into this summer, then think about the Ashes. The trouble is that all the while the likely new-ball pair for the next Ashes is being denied game time. They have not learnt the lesson of Jake Ball, who was regarded as England’s best bowler at the start of their last Australian tour: but he was not given his Test debut until it was too late, lost what confidence he had, and looks as though he will wither on the vine.
Jofra Archer will bowl the first ball of the next Ashes series unless something goes seriously wrong. He should be bowling the first ball of this series, so he knows the role well enough not to bowl it to second slip in Brisbane.
The two opening bowlers who bowled England Lions to their handsome victory over Australia A – a side with five Test batsmen – last winter in Melbourne were Ollie Robinson and Craig Overton. Robinson is Archer’s opening partner at Sussex; he has the height and trajectory to succeed in Australia and bowled a fine second spell in England’s warm-up at Southampton. Overton, who has cut down the leap he had at the end of his run-up, bowls faster, and is not overawed by Australians – as too many are.
And you can see where it will head. Anderson, accurate as ever, will pick up a few economical wickets in Southampton, then the second and third Tests are at Old Trafford, his home ground, so he has to play at least one there.
His total of 584 wickets gradually becomes 590… so he has to be given the chance to reach 600. No England bowler has reached that target, no pace bowler from any country. Thus it will drag on, depriving young bowlers of more game time.
It is a completely legitimate aspiration for Anderson and Broad to carry on bowling. But selectors need to be statesmen.