Time waits for no man, particularly not fast bowlers, not even, statistically, with 680 wickets from 89 Tests together, the best new-ball pair England have ever put on a cricket field.
And, no matter how impertinent it may seem, the news that Stuart Broad is to miss the rest of the season with an ankle injury does nothing to weaken the notion that the years, and the needs of the side they have bowled to so many great victories, may finally be catching up with the fast bowling partnership that has been the engine of most of their Test match success since it was first turned on in New Zealand eight years ago.
When Alastair Cook threw the second new ball to Chris Woakes instead of James Anderson during Pakistan’s huge first innings in the final Test at the Oval, in the eyes of some observers it was a moment redolent with symbolism, as though the skipper was handing over the baton to the leader of the next generation of England’s new ball bowlers.
For it prompted the thought that this might be the shape of things to come, that, by the time they play their next Test cricket at home, following the 2017 Champions Trophy, against South Africa at Lord’s next July, England’s thus-far unthreatened opening partnership, and their most successful ever, may be history.
The first grounds for such speculation are, indeed, time and tide.
Broad is still capable of devastating spells and, at 30, is not yet past his prime. But this latest injury is not the first – problems with shoulder and heel have forced him to miss matches in the past – and it is unlikely to be the last.
Anderson is rightly proud of his largely unblemished attendance, testament to his superb fitness and supreme professionalism and, at 35, while he may have had his tongue in his cheek when he suggested he would like to carry on playing for England until he is 40, he was only half-joking.
Bearing in mind how he hates not doing so any chance he gets, and how spectacularly the decision of former coach Andy Flower to “rest” him for the third Test against West Indies in 2012 went down with him, his recent injury record must be a worry.
In the 12 months since England’s fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge, he has missed four of their last 16 Tests – the final two against Australia, the first in South Africa on Boxing Day and the opener against Pakistan.
Of equal concern is that three different ailments were cited as the cause, in order, a side strain, a calf problem and, finally, though against their judgment and much to his and Cook’s undisguised irritation, the England selectors decided he had not sufficiently recovered from a stress fracture of the shoulder to be able to start the series against Misbah-ul-Haq’s side at Lord’s last month.
By his own admission, Anderson feels he may be dropping down in pace, though he remains adamant his extraordinary skill-set will more than make up for that. No-one is arguing.
But all of the above does recall the time Ian Botham decided, back in 1992, that his body had had quite enough.
“Where does it hurt most?” the great all-rounder was asked. “Everywhere,” he replied.
Looking beyond the upcoming tour to Bangladesh, even if it does go ahead in spite of security fears, Broad will not have played a competitive match for the best part of two months beforehand and the management may decide he would be better off being given more time to recover. There is a similar case for giving Anderson a break as well.
Assuming both men are physically ready for the five-Test series in India that follows, however, the next criteria to be considered is the balance of the side in the prevailing conditions or, rather, simple mathematics.
Woakes’s brilliant form this summer means, fitness permitting, he is certain to make the starting XI for the opening Test in Rajkot. Coach Trevor Bayliss has already said the same about his other all-rounders, Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and fellow spinner Adil Rashid.
And what if the pitches there suggest England need to pack their side with spinners?
“If Stokes is in the team as one of four pace bowlers, you could have two spinners,” said the coach. “If he was one of three pace bowlers, you might even have three spinners. If the wickets are anything like South Africa had in India (last autumn), that’s a possibility.”
The significance of those words will not be lost on Broad and Anderson.
In the series Bayliss referred to, won 3-0 by India with one match washed out, their spinners accounted for 61 of the 69 South African wickets to fall to bowlers, with Ravi Ashwin taking 31 at 11.12, Ravi Jadeja 23 at 10.82 and Amit Mishra seven at 17.28.
For South Africa, spinners Imran Tahir and Simon Harmer were the only two who reached double figures.
The first Test in Mohali and the last in Delhi were over within three days on raging bunsens with India’s team director Ravi Shastri declaring: “To hell with five-day cricket.”
So if three spinners are picked alongside three quicks, and Woakes and Stokes are nailed on, one of Broad or Anderson would have to make way. (And, while we’re about it, Mark Wood and Steven Finn would have their backers, too, and Durham man Wood’s reverse swing should not be ignored.)
If it came to it, history suggests Broad would have less of a case for retention than Anderson, who has shown his skill and his value on Sub-continent pitches more than once.
Even though it has to happen one day, dropping either would be a tough call for Bayliss and tougher still for Cook, who owes them so much.
But, if needs be, he need only think back to the second Test of the 2008 series in Wellington, when coach Peter Moores and captain Michael Vaughan took the massive step of bringing down the curtain on the 2005 Ashes heroes Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard.
Time, they decided, to throw out the old and bring in the new in the shape of two young bowlers they thought must be given their heads, James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday August 26 2016
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