The Ashes: James Anderson's future under the microscope and Pat Cummins set for stardom

Bowlers pass the baton
Bowlers pass the baton

To coin a famous old phrase, 'bowlers win you matches' and the differing fortunes of two of the world's best fast bowlers this summer has gone a long way to deciding the outcome of the Ashes.

There is no doubting that Steve Smith produced an exhibition of batting so dominant that it is fair to say that he has been the difference between the two sides but without James Anderson, England didn't have enough weapons to take down the Australian lynchpin and match the superior bowling firepower of the tourists.

Stuart Broad has enjoyed one of his most productive summers in years and has formed a strong opening pair with Jofra Archer, a bold young talent who has the pace, skills and temperament to enjoy a fine international career if handled with care, but as the series went on and Smith's dominance grew, Anderson's absence was felt more keenly.

You can't just take a man with 575 Test wickets to his name out of the side and expect to fill the gaping hole his absence leaves behind and as much as Archer made a huge impact when coming into the side at Lord's, he and Broad simply needed more support in order for England to regain the Ashes.

Even at the age of 37, Anderson would have been confident of playing a significant role in the series having enjoyed a brilliant start to the summer with Lancashire, taking 30 County Championship wickets at a staggering average of 9.36.

As has appeared to be the case for a number of years now, Anderson looks to be getting better with age - his range of skills expanding all the time and his pace staying constant - and his recent returns for England certainly back that up.

24 wickets at an average of 18.12 against a strong Indian batting line-up last summer were followed by 10 more wickets in the Caribbean and back on home soil, everything seemed in place for Anderson to have one final crack at the old enemy.

Picking up a calf injury for injury had initially appeared to be nothing more than a minor setback that wouldn't hinder his Ashes preparations but for the first time, age finally appears to be catching up with Anderson and his recovery has been a long and frustrating one and one that ultimately saw him bowl only four overs in the opening Test at Edgbaston.

With the Ashes now gone and Joe Root keen to build a new England team, one which can have realistic ambitions of winning the urn back in Australia, there have been inevitable calls for Anderson to call time on his illustrious international career.

The argument for him to do so certainly has merit. At 37 years of age, and with injuries clearly taking their toll on his body, just how long Anderson can continue once he eventually returns to full fitness remains to be seen and England really do need to look forward now.

The thought of Anderson battling back from niggle after niggle, struggling for peak fitness and form in a bid to recapture former glories, isn't something any England cricket fan will want to see. We want to remember Anderson as he was, England's greatest ever bowler, and not witness his career end in an injury-plagued whimper.

James Anderson tries to prove his fitness
James Anderson tries to prove his fitness

The problem with this argument is that Anderson has neither interest in hanging up his bowling boots now, nor resigning himself to the sort of steady decline some consider to be inevitable. Despite what has been a frustrating time, he has spoken recently of his love for game and desire to play a part in England's winter tours to New Zealand and South Africa and there is no doubt he remains in England's best XI when available.

For all the focus in the coming weeks will be on the need for England to look to future, and they clearly do need fresh blood in a continually failing batting line-up, Anderson has remained one of England's best performers over the last few years and with conditions in New Zealand and South Africa always tending to favour the seam and swings bowlers, he is a must pick.

The next Ashes series in 2021/2022 might well prove a bridge too far but he could have a very big part to play in England's ICC World Test Championship bid in the interim and who better for the likes of Archer and Olly Stone to learn from as they find their way in international cricket?

Anderson has been a quite brilliant bowler, someone who has proved an irresistible force with the Dukes ball at home but also when conditions have been less in his favour - think his series-winning performances in Australia in 2010/2011 and then India a year later.

He is firmly established as one of the greats of game and if he can get his body right while maintaining his unrivalled skills and insatiable appetite to play the game, England simply cannot afford to let him walk away for all he is nearing the end.

For much of Anderson's career, he he has bowled side by side with close friend Board as the pair have combined to take over 1000 Test wickets between them and become England's greatest opening bowling pair of all time.

Stuart Broad, left, and James Anderson
Stuart Broad and James Anderson

While Anderson's summer was a frustrating one, Broad enjoyed something of a renaissance as he took 23 Australian wickets in five matches and led the attack with great skill and heart.

Like Anderson, he looks to have a little left in the tank and for all the speculation surrounding Anderson's possible retirement and the suggestion in some quarters that England shouldn't play the pair together in future, England would be wise to take a different view.

Building for the future is as much about having success as a team as anything else and nothing breeds winning like winning. England need to take the forthcoming winter tours seriously and that means playing their strongest side whenever possible.

The need to manage Archer well going forward has been well documented already but his development will only be enhanced by learning from his vastly-experienced bowling colleagues, just as he did in forming a close relationship with Broad this summer.

What is clear is that the curtain is closing on the careers of Anderson and Broad, and following the recent retirement of Dale Steyn, quite possibly the finest of all time, cricket will soon be without a trio of outstanding fast bowlers.

Nevertheless, the game will move on and as one set of great quick bowlers make for the exit door, their places will be taken by a group of exciting young pretenders.

Archer will be part of that group, one that includes Kagiso Rabada, Jasprit Bumrah and Pat Cummins.

Kagiso Rabada
Kagiso Rabada

The Australian was one of the stars of the recent Ashes series, producing a tireless and high-class display of fast bowling that rarely included a poor ball, never mind a poor spell.

Having featured in every game of Australia's preceding World Cup campaign, Cummins delivered 211 overs across five Tests to finish the Ashes as the leading wicket-taker with 29 scalps.

Having burst first on the scene as a fearsome and genuinely quick bowler who swung the ball from his hand, Cummins has recovered from a number of injury setbacks to develop into a wonderfully rounded bowler, one who who can seam and swing the ball both ways, boasts a ferocious bouncer and has seemingly endless stamina reserves.

As England skipper Root will testify, Cummins tests the technique and courage of batsmen in many different ways and having raced to 123 wickets from only 25 matches, he is now some way clear at the top of the ICC Test Rankings.

Furthermore, Cummins has now taken more wickets in his 25 Tests than any Australian fast bowler at the same stage in the history of the game, even eclipsing the likes of Jeff Thomson and Glenn McGrath.

Former Australian captain Ricky Ponting has compared Cummins to Steyn in the last few weeks, a fitting tribute as the 26-year-old takes over the South African's mantle as the best bowler on the planet and promises to reach even greater heights as he approaches what should be his peak years.

With one great fast bowler calling time on a stellar career, and two more in Anderson and Broad trying to defy Father Time just a little longer, we are reminded that the wheels keep on turning and that the world moves on.

Fast bowling is unforgiving work, not work for old bones, and only the toughest can endure it, but watching the best do it well is as thrilling as sport gets and as we look forward to enjoying the likes of Cummins and Archer taking the art forward, we can but hope for just a little bit more magic from two old masters.

Jimmy and Stuart, just one more dance please.


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