Succession planning is the cornerstone of all successful sports teams – the identifying, developing and then blooding of new talent to replace the old and waning. Yet even the most assiduous mess up the process, which is why hale and hearty though James Anderson and Stuart Broad still seem, their successors should already have been lined up by the selectors… and primed for action.
But have they? And if so, who are these heirs to our greatest pair of opening bowlers and their legacy of 1,000 plus Test wickets?
England play Australia this summer for the Ashes, cricket’s biggest, most famous and longest-running duel. One imagines that if everyone available is fit by late July when the squad for the first Test is picked, then Broad and Anderson, or ‘Branderson’ if you like, along with Ben Stokes plus one other between Mark Wood or Chris Woakes, will start the series as England’s pace attack.
Others will need to be ready. Anderson will be 37 and Broad 33 prior to that first Ashes Test at Edgbaston on August 1. For some modern players, age can be just a number given their enhanced fitness and the protection offered by central contracts. For most, though, the biology does not lie, which is probably why Broad sought to remind Joe Root, England’s captain, that he still retains the vim of younger men by hitting him on the head with a bouncer at Trent Bridge, though Root had the final say by scoring a hundred.
It is a law of nature that bowlers of advanced vintage not only feel the strain more than their younger counterparts, they also struggle to shake off niggles as they once did. So while form is unlikely to be an issue for Broad and Anderson, as both know their game backwards, fitness could be, which is why a phalanx of likely lads needs to be primed for action not just for the Aussies, but also going forward into the International Cricket Council’s Test Championship, which begins with that series, but runs for the next three years.
Then there is the mental state of Broad and Anderson to consider. At present, both men claim to want to keep playing for England, but moods can change fast in international sport. With 575 Test wickets to his name, Anderson is probably eyeing the 600 mark before any contemplation that he might reach for his pipe and slippers.
A spectacular series against Australia would get him there. Assuming it also ended in an England win such an occasion might be a fitting moment for him to retire. Then again, a swingeing defeat, with him short of that milestone, might also persuade him to call it a day, the emotional tug-of-war of top level sport making it almost impossible to call.
Broad’s next milestone is 450 Test wickets (he has 437). It is one he should reach without difficulty providing he plays the entire Ashes series, though that is by no means certain given Sam Curran was preferred to him in the Caribbean only three Tests ago.
Although four years younger than Anderson, Broad is three inches taller. That makes for more stress through his body even before considering that he also bowls quicker than Anderson and has done throughout their joint careers. As such they should not be seen as equivalents obsolescing at the same rate and a tough Ashes series might just hasten that process.
Two bowlers, Woakes and Wood, have already been mentioned. When gremlin-free and on song both are worth a place in the side, with Woakes more suited to English conditions and Wood to overseas, where his 90mph pace tends to be helped by the variable bounce and pace you tend to get on pitches abroad.
Neither are bankers in the manner of ‘Branderson.’ In their bids to bowl quick, both men have suffered injuries which have kept them out for series rather than mere games – Woakes with knee and side, Wood with ankle. As a result, neither can really be considered even medium-term replacements for England’s two senior bowlers.
Sam Curran won the man of the series against India during last summer’s Tests, his well-timed interventions with bat and ball crucial to the outcome of the series. As a skiddy, brisk, swing bowler, but a clever, counter-attacking batsman, he is more likely to fill the niche that says ‘batsman who bowls’ rather than the specialist bowler who eventually replaces Anderson or Broad, even if he was (over) promoted as such in the recent Test in Barbados, with series-losing consequences.
Two potential fast bowlers, and I use potential guardedly as neither of these bowlers has stayed fit for long, are Jamie Overton of Somerset and Olly Stone of Warwickshire. Stone even went on England’s tour of the West Indies, but returned home after a stress injury was discovered in his back.
Both men are genuinely quick but while speed is a highly valuable commodity in cricket, that value is only realised when it can be delivered not just over two or three spells a day, but over the course of a series or three. So far, neither has shown the physical rigour to achieve this.
One who has withstood most of the physical trials is Steve Finn, Middlesex’s captain. Now 30, Finn last played a Test for England two and half years ago. Finn’s problems were largely mental stemming from confidence issues over his lengthy run-up and possibly from a surfeit of advice from well-meaning coaches. Having tasted the high life and succeeded, at least to begin with, you’d have thought he’d be craving a return but that is not the impression given as he settles on lifting Middlesex out of Division Two of the County Championship.
Finn’s county team mate, Toby Roland-Jones, had a fine start to his England career taking 17 wickets in four Tests before a dreaded stress-fracture brought a compulsory halt to matters. Tall, with a strong hit-the-pitch action, he would seem the obvious replacement for Broad, injury problems permitting, except at 32 he is only two years his junior. Nottinghamshire’s Jake Ball bowls in similar fashion and while only 28, he appears to have blotted his copy book so far as England are concerned.
The most talented young bowler around, and therefore one who fits the bill, potentially, as a long term replacement, is 24-year old Jofra Archer. Barbados-born but recently qualified to play for England, Archer is quick but with scope to improve his skills.
The only impediment is whether red-ball cricket will pall in comparison to the white-ball riches he has so far received after stints in the Indian Premier League, the Pakistan Super League and Big Bash.
There are other promising bowlers like Warwickshire’s Henry Brookes, Middlesex’s Tom Helm, Yorkshire’s Ben Coad and Zak Chappell of Notts, but only Coad gets regular first team cricket. Even then, he probably lacks that crucial yard of pace you need at Test level.
The era of Branderson is nearing the end. But while it is difficult to see which two might replace them with anything like the same certainty of performance as they supplied over the years there is, in the word’s of Charles Dickens’
Mr Micawber, the likelihood that “something will turn up.” It always does.
DEREK PRINGLE / Photo: Getty Images