Forget the Ashes, England pace pair Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad must turn it on now

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The unwritten rules of the cricket news cycle dictate that in an Ashes year, little else matters.

England have not planned this carefully for an Ashes since Andrew Strauss’s great side won down under in 2010/11, the first victory there since 1986/87.

Since Chris Silverwood took over from Trevor Bayliss after the summer of 2019, it has dominated the agenda, leading to questions about whether James Anderson and Stuart Broad should play together at home, and succession planning.

But look too far ahead and you can stumble on the very next step. And the steps that England have to take before they reach Brisbane are treacherous.

Two matches against one World Test Championship finalists, then five against the other. To keep up their record of not having lost a home Test series since 2014, they will have to be at their very best.

Against New Zealand, that is complicated by the loss of Ben Stokes, their second-best batsman and the high-ticket item that balances their side.

His understudies, Chris Woakes (who would get in the side at home as a bowler come what may) and Sam Curran are missing, too. Among the bowlers, so is Jofra Archer.

Throw into the mix their first three wicketkeepers are missing for reasons of injury and rest, and the picture is muddied further.

Sure, all this provides opportunity — a debut for James Bracey and perhaps Ollie Robinson, plus a home debut for Dan Lawrence — and might foster greater depth, but England are weakened for it.

Their chances of coming out on top — and creating the sort of winning culture that will be so important to take to Australia — are hurt.

With the exception of skipper Joe Root, who would love a first Test century at home since 2018, the batting looks callow, so England’s best hope of victory is for their handsome bowling stocks to be at their best.

Anderson and Broad, rightly, will lead the attack. In these conditions, only Woakes can hold a candle to them.

It is the eve of the Test summer, so Anderson is on the verge of another raft of records. He has 992 first-class wickets.

Eight more would make him the first player from these shores to 1,000 since Robert Croft 14 years ago. The last seamer was Andy Caddick two years earlier.

If he reaches 1,000 first-class wickets in this series, he will pass Anil Kumble’s 619 Test wickets (he currently has 614). That leaves only the two titans, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, ahead in the list of leading Test wicket takers.

Do not bet against him passing these landmarks this week, given the fact that no one has taken more than his 103 Test wickets at Lord’s, although he is yet to appear on the honours board for a 10-wicket haul (despite six five-fers).

Anderson’s proper preparation — games — has not been ideal, by his own admission. Having taken his time to overcome a minor calf injury, a decent run out in Lancashire’s damp draw against Glamorgan has been followed by four days watching rain fall in Northampton.

Broad has been in terrific nick for Nottinghamshire, and claims to be enjoying his cricket more than ever.

Who joins them is less clear. England value high pace, and Mark Wood looks set to get the nod, having performed well in Sri Lanka this year.

With so much doubt around Archer’s fitness, Wood is considered a vital figure in Australia — but has much to offer long before. This will be an opportunity to correct his modest home record. Olly Stone may well come in for him at his home ground, Edgbaston.

That leaves one final spot — for a fourth seamer, or spinner. Ollie Robinson, the combative Sussex quick, would appear to edge Craig Overton on the seam front, but to get either in, England would have to leave out Jack Leach.

He made major strides in six subcontinental Tests this winter, and is unquestionably England’s No1 spinner for the first time.

He has no central contract, but deserves a long run in the side. While Root and Lawrence can offer serviceable part-timer spin, that might not be enough this week, with summer finally turning up.

However England line up, this will be an imperfect XI very different from the one that takes the field in Australia. But let’s not worry about Australia yet — there is far too much to worry about first.

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