Jimmy Anderson, bloody hell. Six for 40, in fierce heat, while everyone else managed four for 339. His best haul in Asia, 17 years after he first played there. The first five-for recorded in an Asian Test by a 38-year-old seamer. I could go on, but it is only 24 hours since this space was last devoted to Anderson’s excellence.
Happily, there is another angle here that is just as interesting: the ramifications of rotation. On England’s Sri Lanka tour, Anderson and Stuart Broad are sharing a place in the starting XI. It seems to be going rather well, with each man surpassing himself – Broad’s three for 20 in the first Test was a personal best in Sri Lanka. These two elder pacemen have taken nine for 74 from 55 overs of magnificent miserliness in three ininngs. And Broad has not even complained about being left out.
By now, on all past form, the era of Anderson and Broad should have come to an end. Perhaps it has, with a twist: we have now entered the era of Anderson or Broad. England probably will not want to play them both in Australia, which is no country for old men.
At Brisbane, where the Ashes usually begin, Broad has a formidable record and Anderson does not. At Adelaide, which tends to host the second Test, it is the other way round. So England’s two most prolific bowlers of all time may turn into characters on a townhall clock – when one pops into view, the other vanishes.
There is just one flaw in the theory. Given they have been so good on this tour, wouldn’t they have been even better if they had been able to bowl together? Pressure at both ends, the slips staying in place for longer, the batsmen wondering where on earth the next run will come from?
The secret to Test cricket is having bowlers who are parsimonious and penetrating. Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne did it for Steve Waugh; Anderson and Broad have often done it for Joe Root and still can.
The four Tests looming in India are going to be a lot tougher than these games in Galle. The first two of them are in Chennai, where, the last time England were in town, India scored 750. Root will need all the control he can get.
With Ben Stokes returning from his rest and Moeen Ali fit again to challenge Dom Bess for the off‑spinner’s spot, England could just about find room for their two old maestros. The bottom six would be Buttler, Moeen, Archer, Broad, Leach and Anderson – a longer tail than usual, but not too high a reading on the Caddick-Mullally-Giddins-Tufnell scale.
Vic Marks, in his long stint on these pages, used to observe with a chuckle that the England management would talk about the need to rotate players and then forget it when there was a match to win. The official line is now more overt than it has ever been – rotation, rotation, rotation. But it may yet crumble in the face of something else Ed Smith believes in: pragmatism.
The issue is highlighted by Jonny Bairstow. He was picked in Sri Lanka only as a stand-in for Rory Burns (busy becoming a dad), but in the first Test, with 47 and 35 not out, he made off with the award for best actor in a supporting role to Root. The big score that eluded him then could well come his way on Sunday.
In this series, he has played the role of Paul Collingwood, as the flatmate who always clears up the mess. He is a superb player of spin, a fine fielder when not keeping wicket and a regular in the IPL, so he knows India like the back of his bat. And yet, before he reached the crease on Saturday, it had already been announced that he would miss the next two Tests.
The management are right to be thinking about the players’ mental health and looking to give them breathers from the biosecure bubbles. But these good intentions are in danger of having bad repercussions, because they break one of sport’s golden rules – take each game as it comes. If all the selectors had to do was to pick a top five to face India on Friday week, they would ink in Bairstow instantly, with Root and Stokes, and spend most of the meeting discussing whether to send an SOS to Keaton Jennings, the only England opener who gets better on a dustbowl.
“Have to be honest,” Nasser Hussain said on Sky, “I’m finding it a bit odd, Jonny Bairstow not going to India.”
Old lags often find things odd, and this could have been just a measured version of Fred Trueman spluttering about not knowing what is going off out there. Except England have a glaring problem at the top of the order, where Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley have a combined score of 28 for six, and they are about to say goodbye to the guy who keeps solving it. They are forcing themselves to find another fix, which may involve retaining Dan Lawrence in the middle order and pushing Root back into the No 3 slot he prefers to avoid.
That is the trouble with rotation: it can just mean you end up going round in circles.