It’s the beginning of the end, then, for the two finest fast bowlers England have ever had, the decision to drop them as sudden and unexpected as a bullet in the back. Like they say in the Sopranos: “Our line of work, it’s always out there, you probably don’t even hear it when it happens.”
Jimmy Anderson knows it. He wrote as much in his column just a couple of weeks ago: “Everyone’s future is in doubt, it always happens when you get beaten in Ashes.” But it’s one thing to say it, another to really believe it’s true and might be about to happen to you. He also said Joe Root had only just told him he wanted him to stay on. And he would have too, through the West Indies tour, into the English summer and beyond.
If you were picking a side to win England’s next game, Anderson and Broad would be in it. There’s no argument in the statistics. Anderson has taken 56 wickets at 24 runs each in the past two years of Test cricket, Broad 52 at 21. No one else has managed more than 40.
You might highlight Anderson’s growing problem with taking wickets in the second innings, but he is still a fitter bowler than Ollie Robinson, who in Australia struggled to make it through his third and fourth spells, let alone the third and fourth days.
You might mention Broad’s long lean stretch on tour in Sri Lanka and India last spring, but he’s still a better Test bowler in the conditions than Chris Woakes. But of course those aren’t the numbers that matter. Anderson will hate it, given he’s been complaining for years that older players are held to a different standards, but the figures behind this decision are their ages – 35 and 39 – and the sense that England’s new interim management team, who have now sacked or dropped 11 players and coaches in a week (it’s ended up a very red and bloody “red-ball reset”), feel this is the best way to begin a new era.
It can be a fine line between bravery and stupidity. Whether the management are seen to have crossed it or not will depend on how the team does in the West Indies, where they haven’t won a series in 18 years.
It leaves Root, in particular, under real pressure to justify the decision to keep him on as captain even after his teams have twice been beaten out of sight in Australia. No one involved is about to discuss it in public now, but there were clear signs of friction between him and his two senior bowlers during the Ashes.
He criticised his attack for not being “braver” and for bowling the wrong lengths after they were beaten in Adelaide. Anderson’s pointed public reply was: “We can’t just go after the game, ‘we should have bowled fuller’,” while Broad delivered more blunt truths later in the tour. “It doesn’t matter which bowlers you play if you’re being bowled out for 140,” he said.
Broad spoke so well in that press conference that people started talking about whether he might be England’s next Test captain. “Instead of looking ahead at what’s coming next year, what’s coming in the winter, what’s coming in the next Ashes series, can we get back to the real basics of what’s ahead of us right now? How are we winning this next Test?” he said. England have ended up taking the opposite tack. Root, Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood have decided it will be easier to start rebuilding the team, and remodelling England’s approach to Test cricket, without Anderson and Broad.
Strauss says it is only for the “time being”. He made it clear that whoever takes over as England’s managing director and head coach would have the choice of picking them again.
He’ll know, too, that it won’t necessarily work out that way. It will depend on results in the West Indies and whether Anderson and Broad want to knuckle down to two months of county cricket to try to prove they deserve their spots in the Test squad – spots which, they’ll feel, shouldn’t have been taken away from them to begin with.
The anger they feel in the days after the decision will have to drive them through the cold weeks of the Championship, which will feel a little different when Test selection is not taken as given at the end of them.
The best, most charitable take on all this is the one Strauss offered himself. It means the new coach will have more options when they take over. They’ll know what they can expect from Broad and Anderson, after all, and have an idea if Matthew Fisher, Craig Overton and Saqib Mahmood are genuine contenders in Test cricket, and whether Robinson, Woakes and Mark Wood are able to lead the attack.
But the flip side of it, which Strauss didn’t mention, is that the coach will also be in the invidious position of beginning with a difficult decision about whether or not to take a step backwards, and a righteous clamour to recall Anderson and Broad for at least one more series as a send-off in recognition of everything they’ve done for English cricket.
Because it can’t and shouldn’t end like this, with a press release in the dead of winter.