Exactly 10 years ago to the day England started a Test match in New Zealand with what was to prove a lasting and very successful change in personnel. The second Test in Wellington was seen as crucial for England and their captain, Michael Vaughan, coming as it did after seven without a victory and with the team facing the prospect of a series defeat with a game to spare, and some personnel changes were inevitable.
Though the batsmen had been misfiring – being bowled out for 81 and 110 in successive Tests – it was the bowlers who took the hit, with Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison left out. “It was a tough call,” said Vaughan. “There was a gut instinct that we needed to make a change to give the attack a shake-up. Now I really hope that both fight to get their places back.”
Harmison, Mike Selvey wrote in the Guardian, was “contemplating the prospect of never playing for his country again”, while Hoggard “will have the opportunity to come back”. In fact it was the other way round: Hoggard never again played for England in any format while Harmison would remain involved for another year or so, playing his last Test the following summer at the age of 30.
Back in Wellington, Vaughan talked up the two bowlers who, as a result of the change in lineup, would be playing together for the first time: James Anderson and, in his second Test, 21-year-old Stuart Broad. “It’s exciting times,” he said. “It feels like a new era and it’s a great opportunity for them.”
Anderson took seven wickets in that Test and Broad three (Ryan Sidebottom got a five-for in New Zealand’s second innings to finish with six for the match), as England went on to take the series. They were the first nine scalps in a running tally which now stands, counting only those wickets taken in games both have played, at 774. During the recent Ashes series, in which there was very little for English bowlers to celebrate, they overtook Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh (762) to become the most successful new-ball partnership in Test history. If it felt to Vaughan then like a new era, that is certainly what it has become: as of the third Ashes Test in Perth – their 100th – the pair have been picked together in more than 10% of all England Tests ever.
But in New Zealand this year, as in 2008, they – and Broad in particular – start with something to prove. Over the last 19 months and 16 Tests the 31-year-old’s bowling average, 29.33 before August 2016, has swollen to 36.43, and his strike rate from 56.4 to 78.1 (in the same period Anderson, remarkably, has improved: his average has gone from 28.26 to 20.61, and his strike rate from 56.9 to 53.9).
It is a challenge Broad is determined to face head, or rather side, on. Since the Ashes he has attempted to remodel his action, “working to get more side on, [with] more twist in my shoulders to get my front arm more towards the target, helping my feet align much better”. He has publicly stated his desire to play in the 2019 Ashes, but his place may be dependent on the results of his labour.
“I have seen Stuart doing a lot of work on his action recently so it is good to see he is still hungry and trying to keep [up with] these other guys,” Anderson says. The pair have worked – and talked – together extensively since the end of the Ashes. “We’ve chatted quite a bit,” he says. “From his point of view he had to go away and work on his action. That was good for him. It is good if you are focused on one thing. It takes you away from the world. We chatted, and I think the conclusion we came to is we are both really hungry to keep playing and have the drive to keep improving. We still think we have something to offer this team. We are performing well and trying to help the team moving forward, and help the other bowlers, to try and make the transition for them coming into the team as easy as possible.”
The identities of their eventual replacements is the long white cloud hanging over England as they seek a first Test win outside their own country since they beat Bangladesh by 22 runs in Chittagong 17 months and 11 attempts ago. The question is becoming increasingly urgent, explaining why a team that in 2011 and 2012 did not try a single new seamer has given debuts to five of them in the last three years and is preparing for further experimentation. Of those recently given opportunities Craig Overton probably looks the most likely to succeed, but the search has most certainly not ended.
Chris Silverwood, who has recently started work as fast bowling coach, has suggested that Sussex’s George Garton, who was involved with England Lions over the winter but has recently been sidelined by injury, and Somerset’s Jamie Overton, Craig’s younger twin, might soon get a chance. Over the last few months Overton Junior has spent time in South Africa and Spain as part of the ECB’s Pace Programme, in which he has worked with the injury-plagued Reece Topley, who has chosen to focus on white-ball cricket, Josh Tongue and George Scrimshaw of Worcestershire, Essex’s Paul Walter, Tom Barber of Middlesex and Leicestershire’s Zak Chappell.
“I think there are guys putting pressure on us,” says Anderson. “Mark Wood being fit is a huge plus. I think all the guys who played in Australia did themselves proud on difficult pitches. It is really hard going into an Ashes series, never mind on the pitches we played on, but I thought Craig Overton and Tom Curran lifted their performances. Chris Woakes can be someone Joe Root leans on. There are guys there keeping us on our toes.”
A decade after Hoggard and Harmison got the boot in Wellington, Broad and Anderson are fighting hard to delay the moment they meet the same fate. England’s selectors, needing as much time as possible to identify and nurture their replacements, will be roaring them on.
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