T.here was a lovely and rather poignant moment during Mollie King’s Instagram Live feed on Sunday morning. The radio presenter and former pop star was filming a video from her house di lei, chatting gaily away about wellness and vitamin supplements, when all of a sudden her fiance di lei pops up in the comments, apologising for the noise he’s making in the next room.
“That must be him calling the front door,” Mollie laughs. “Stuart? I’ve shut the door so he don’t distract me. He’s sat outside. Come in, babe! ” And then, right on cue, in walks Instagram husband: Stuart Broad, all 6ft 6in and 537 Test wickets of him, smiling sheepishly in an MCC training top. Another woman on the call, an Australian nutritionist, remembers that Broad has just been playing in the Ashes, and asks him when he’ll next be back.
“I’m not sure,” Broad replies, and for an instant his gaze sinks, and you realize that very few of the people tuning in will have the faintest idea of his turmoil, an interior chaos that may be passing through the stages of shock and denial and anger but is still very recognisably a form of grief. After a little good-natured banter, Broad leaves and the conversation turns to Mollie’s blossoming media career di lei.
Of course, Broad has been carefully nurturing a little media empire of his own: punditry, podcasts, newspaper columns. But for all the careful strategising and polished media sheen, there has always been a rawness there too: an untamed sporting animal whose wildest dreams still involve nipping one back off the seam and clattering off-stump. The world of television studios and celebrity magazine spreads and Instagram Lives will open its arms when the time is right. But it is not the thing he wants right now.
The first thing to say about Broad and Jimmy Anderson’s omission from next month’s tour of the West Indies is that there is a certain perverse logic to it. For all their longevity and excellence, their numbers do not on their own make an unanswerable case: in the past 12 months Anderson averages 29.34 and Broad 30.20. Sooner or later England need their younger bowlers to shoulder more responsibility. That means taking the new ball, leading an attack, setting the tone of an innings. Emulation and example will only take you so far. The only real way of doing it is to do it.
So you can see why Andrew Strauss and Joe Root – not blithe or reckless or unsentimental men – made their choice. None of which makes it any easier to process, any less sad or bewildering for fans of English cricket who will mourn this loss almost as sharply as the players themselves. And for all the bitterness and argument, something fundamental is being lost here.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Anderson and Broad may well be the last great red-ball seamers this country ever produces: an endangered species that over recent years has been hunted – by market forces and cultural shifts – towards extinction.
Consider: since being dropped from the white-ball side in 2015, Anderson and Broad have essentially been able to dedicate themselves to mastering the red ball, to the exclusion of everything else. What enabled them to do this? Money and prestige, for one thing: the primacy of Test cricket and the generosity of central contracts made red-ball specialism a viable career choice. Of course they could still play decent white-ball cricket, and Broad did for a while. But it did not need to be the fulcrum of their career.
And so in part Anderson and Broad’s brilliance derived from the purity of their vocation. They didn’t need to perfect a back-of-the-hand slower delivery. They weren’t being pressed to add a few clicks of pace. They weren’t being pulled in five directions by franchises and the next contract. They didn’t have to worry about relearning their natural length every time they switched from one format to another.
Will any England fast bowler ever enjoy that luxury again? Perhaps if they want to. Chris Woakes and Ollie Robinson could ultimately go down that path, even if Woakes is still part of the white-ball setup and Robinson has ambitions in that direction. But the rewards are diminishing and will diminish even further for the generation that follows them. Mumbai Indians’ £ 783,000 bid for Jofra Archer in the recent Indian Premier League auction was higher than the value of Broad and Anderson’s annual England contract, even though Archer will miss the entire 2022 tournament with injury. Mark Wood has long been a white-ball bowler who makes occasional Test appearances. So too Sam Curran.
Of course talented young fast bowlers will still thrive in all formats. But the type of bowlers who emerge will increasingly be dictated by the Twenty20 marketplace: extreme pace, the explosive and the unpredictable, bowlers who can also pinch-hit. None of this is a bad thing in itself: you only had to watch Jasprit Bumrah during the series against England last summer to see that white-ball smarts can be spectacularly effective in the longest format.
But does the traditional craft of English fast bowling – swing and seam, mastery of conditions, six balls in the same spot – have a place in this new order? Will there ever be another English seamer who can control a red ball as skilfully as Anderson or Broad? As these modern greats retreat into the periphery, honing their golf swings, pacing the floors at home, they will doubtless be plotting their comeback. But in a way, the world they thrived in has already gone.