England’s Stuart Broad and James Anderson during a nets session before the first Test against New Zealand. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images/ReutersEngland’s Stuart Broad and James Anderson during a nets session before the first Test against New Zealand. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images/ReutersTue 1 Jun 2021 09.00 BST
Cricket does love a tradition, and one of them is that batsmen last longer than bowlers. Batting may be mentally tougher (one mistake and you’re gone), but physically it’s far easier. You just stand there and let the ball come to you; if you time it and place it, you can make runs without having to run. And when the ball is red, you’re perfectly entitled, even encouraged, to play no stroke.
So it is that batsmen have tended to go on and on. Jack Hobbs made eight Test centuries in his 40s. Graham Gooch was 36 when he made 333 against India and nearly 41 by the time of his only other Test double hundred, 210 against New Zealand. When Tony Greig found himself captaining England against the fire and brimstone of Clive Lloyd’s West Indies, he sent for a new opening pair: John Edrich, then 39, and Brian Close, 45.
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Even in the 21st century, the age of the gym bunny, we’ve seen Alec Stewart twiddling his bat in seven Tests after turning 40, and Sachin Tendulkar, at the same age, playing the last two Tests of a 24-year career. As veterans, both were trumped by Misbah-ul-Haq, who played 29 Tests in his 40s, making 2000 runs and doing about a million press-ups.
Bowlers, on the whole, last half as long as batsmen. Fast bowlers especially – slamming into the crease 120 times a day, asking too much of their ankles – tend not to be keepers. Frank Tyson was finished at 28, Ian Bishop at 30, Andrew Flintoff at 31.
In the first England squad selected by Chris Silverwood, though, this syndrome has been flipped on its head. The bright young things are all batsmen. The youngest player is Zak Crawley, born in 1998, followed by Ollie Pope and Dan Lawrence, also 23, and James Bracey and Haseeb Hameed (hooray!), both 24. If Ashley Giles hadn’t been a spoilsport about intra-squad football, this lot could have played Old v Young or Bowlers v Batters, and the team sheets would have been much the same. The average bowler in the squad is 32, seven years older than the average batsman. There may still be hope for Darren Stevens.
The change is partly down to two outliers you know all about: Jimmy Anderson, still holding back the years at 38, and Stuart Broad, tirelessly reminding us that he’s not quite 35. But even the junior seamers are now on the senior side. The youngest bowler Silverwood has picked is Craig Overton, who turned 27 in April. The fastest is either Olly Stone, also 27, or Mark Wood, 31. The newest is Ollie Robinson of Sussex, who, if he gets the nod at Lord’s, will become an international cricketer at 27 and a half.
Craig Overton, the youngest bowler in the England squad, attempts to run out Joe Weatherley in Somerset’s County Championship game against Hampshire. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
At Robinson’s age, Anderson had played 46 Tests and taken 156 wickets at the rather pricey average of 34. Broad had played 65 Tests and taken 231 wickets at 30, while Ian Botham had played 59 Tests, taken 267 wickets, become England captain, resigned, and staged the mother of all comebacks. His bowling average was 24 – better than Anderson’s or Broad’s has ever been, though they’re inching downwards, whereas Botham went the other way.
Those three, the leading wicket-takers in England’s history, were all blooded young. Robinson, by contrast, has slowly turned himself into a high-class county seamer. Born in Kent, he’s the Margate McGrath – half beanpole, half metronome. But he won’t be joining Anderson and Broad at the top of the heap. There just isn’t time.
Robinson may still have a satisfying Test career. He could be the next Ryan Harris (started at 30, finished at 34) or Mohammad Abbas (started at 27, still going strong at 31). Alec Bedser took all of his Test wickets at 27-plus, because war had stopped play. So, for different reasons, did SF Barnes, whose Test average – 16 – is by far the best of any Englishman with 150 wickets. But then he was a mystery spinner who happened to be medium-fast.
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Age is just a number, or so older people say. And you can almost believe them when you look at Anderson’s progress. He’s taken 134 Test wickets at 20 since turning 35, a record for an England seam or swing bowler. When he helps himself to six more, he will overtake Barnes, the last Englishman ahead of him in this table.
The only seamer in history Anderson hasn’t seen off is Courtney Walsh, who collected 180 Test wickets at 21 after his 35th birthday. But, magnificent as he was, Courtney also offers a cautionary tale. Touring Australia at 37, he finally showed his age. In five Tests he took 11 wickets at 43, and his strike rate was mortifying: one wicket every 18 overs.
Australia is no country for old sportsmen. Since the Queen came to the throne in 1952, only four Test five-fors have been taken there by a visiting seamer of 35-plus. Three by Richard Hadlee, in just three matches; one by Anderson himself, in five (with a little help from the Adelaide dew). Broad has a five-for at Brisbane, to go with Anderson’s at Adelaide, and both have flourished at Melbourne, as English seamers often do. But it will be astonishing if they play a big part in the Ashes – which is why Robinson and Overton have to play this summer.