“We see it as a strategic decision at the moment.”
As far as strategic decisions go, sidelining 1,177 Test wickets is up there with the boldest. Well ahead of wearing a blindfold in a dodgeball match. And as Andrew Strauss, managing director of men’s cricket for the time being, addressed the media at Lord’s on Wednesday, he was unequivocal in his view that dropping James Anderson and Stuart Broad for the tour of West Indies is the right thing to do.
He reiterated this was the view held by the selection panel, which also featured stand-in head coach Paul Collingwood and head scout James Taylor. And it was not for nothing that he went on record to state Joe Root, who was part of this long back and forth, did not have voting rights on this or other selection matters. The same England captain who at the end of the 4-0 Ashes defeat stated he wanted both out in the Caribbean with him.
Let’s talk about strategy for a moment, specifically how it pertains to this situation. Because from the outside – and in – doing without two high-class performers, particularly Anderson who remains the team’s premier quick with 40 dismissals at 23 since the start of 2021, isn’t exactly conducive to improving on field results when it’s needed most. Nor is leaving the guidance and nous of 321 Tests at home while six fast bowlers (two of them debutants) with just 82 caps between them try and set about this reset in a region where only one (Mark Wood) has toured before. England have just one series win (2004) against West Indies in their last 10 visits.
It is, in essence, solely about creating a void that, for three Tests at least, must be filled. Chris Woakes simply has to show much more than his overseas average of 52.38, and may make a better fist of doing so with an undisputed role with the new ball. Ollie Robinson’s fitness can no longer be an excuse for starting slowly in his second or third spells in a day, or dropping his speeds across a Test. Wood must maintain his exemplary form during the Ashes, and not just feel hard done by not to get wickets. Similarly, the newbies, whether Saqid Mahmood or Matt Fisher, with a clearer route into the XI, need to hit the ground running if they get a chance. Anything less and England will leave with the Caribbean with a third successive series defeat.
Most importantly for Strauss, it seems, is the omission of Anderson and Broad forces the team to find influence from other sources. “What I do think is it gives an opportunity at the moment for people to stand up and play leadership roles they haven’t previously,” said Strauss. “We need a good solid spine to that team moving forward. We need leaders, not just the captain, and this provides an opportunity for some of the players to do that.”
Now this is where it gets interesting, even a little suggestive. Strauss dismissed the idea of either obstructing other voices, or that their personalities were too dominant for others to prosper. Were they too strong for Root to handle? Again, another rebuttal: “If that had been the case they would not have played for all these years. I don’t believe that to be the case.”
That is certainly true of the wider bowling group. Out in Australia, Anderson and Broad were willing to impart their expertise when sidelined and encouraged others to speak their thoughts when playing. One notable example of the latter came when Robinson messaged the bowling WhatsApp chat after a day’s play to chastise them for allowing Australia’s batters to leave deliveries 30 per cent of the time. They have also been particularly forthcoming in sharing the skills that make them unique and, until now, undroppable.
With regards to the team, things are not quite so straightforward. The pair have a certain intimidation factor because of their longevity and personas. Their voices carry a little more weight, their words – and particularly their criticisms – pack a punch. And the prevalence of those words – both have prominent media presences already – is something certain teammates find difficult to square. Behind the scenes in Australia, the honest conversations over repeat poor performance ended up feeling like a batters-vs-bowlers stand-off.
Broad’s brutal public assessment during the Ashes that it doesn’t matter which bowlers you pick if the batters keeping getting rolled for 140 knocked a few noses out of joint. There were shades of the interview he gave Sky Sports when he was dropped for the first Test of the 2020 summer against the West Indies. The issue then was not that he spoke honestly about his axing, but that the interview took place during the match. The sense from a handful was that had anyone else given that interview, they would have been ostracised from the dressing room. Aside from Anderson, who has saved any grumbles he might have for his column in the Daily Telegraph.
All that, though, feels a little overblown, and only hindsight and over-egging whispers has them in any way a hindrance to English cricket. They were not the reason England have won just four matches out of 16 since the start of last year, or why the team failed to reach 300 once and fell short of 200 six times in the Ashes. The irony is without Anderson and Broad’s salvo at Sydney, Australia would have won 5-0 instead.
But their absence certainly provides an opportunity for others to step up across the board. The previous management were at a loss to explain why those who came in and established themselves over the last five years have shied away from assuming more than their share of authority, particularly Rory Burns, who is by all accounts an excellent leader at Surrey. At least the new interims are trying to correct that.
Quite whether this is the right way of doing that remains to be seen. As for what a new, more permanent management team decide upon, Strauss offered one final counter to say he was not taking on the toughest decision in generations now to make the job a little easier for whoever takes it on.
“I don’t see it as an issue to be ‘dealt with’. I think that’s very harsh on James Anderson and Stuart Broad. They’ve given everything to England cricket over a long period of time.”
Right now, we know it is not the end for either. But it certainly seems the end for them as a pair. “They are different ages of course as well so if you want variety in your bowling attack, you have to go ‘what do they offer and what do other people offer?’ That is something for a new coach and a new director of cricket to think about.”
And so, we find ourselves here. Having dovetailed for 126 Tests over the last 14 years, bringing great success to those around them, it seems Anderson and Broad’s best hopes of prolonging their decorated careers will be by looking out for themselves.