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Do James Anderson and Stuart Broad really have the hunger for the rebuild? We're about to find out

Andrew Strauss's axing of England's veteran pairing is a message to the entire Test set-up

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
James Anderson and Stuart Broad held their own in Australia, but the question of their enduring hunger has been posed  •  Getty Images

James Anderson and Stuart Broad held their own in Australia, but the question of their enduring hunger has been posed  •  Getty Images

And there we were all thinking, the response to another Ashes train-wreck had been just a little bit … meh.
At no stage of the winter just gone had there been any sense that an alternative narrative was there to be grasped; from the moment that Rory Burns' stumps were splattered at Brisbane, there was not even a fleeting flicker of hope that England had any residual control over their destiny.
And so, after just another bog-standard beating in Australia, out the ECB had trotted with a seemingly bog-standard response: the sacking of a coach who had been thrown in over his head, and the execution of the executive who had set him up for that failure. A cigar-chewing assistant then made it a trio of sacrifices in as many days - and that, quite conceivably, could have been that. A sufficiency of blood-letting to meet the needs of the news cycle, then swiftly onwards to the next big date in England's never-relenting diary.
It turns out that Andrew Strauss had alternative plans, and not for the first time in his iron-fisted role as England's maker-of-stuff-to-happen. "Red-ball reset", you say? Coming right up - here comes the only man at the ECB with the spine to stand up his platitudes, and this time he's delivered with the most extraordinary bonfire of vanities this side of the central contracts era.
It's hard to recall a more ruthless cull of England's red-ball ranks since the turn of the millennium. The fall-out from the 2013-14 Ashes was every bit as gory, of course, though less startling, given that the dismantling of a great England team had already taken place on the field, rather than in the selection committee. Aside from the thorny issue of Kevin Pietersen, there wasn't much left to be decided where the likes of Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swann were concerned, let alone Scott Borthwick and Boyd Rankin.
This time, however, you'd arguably have to rewind to Graham Gooch's legendary tour of the Caribbean in 1989-90 for a comparable headline shock - the binning-off of two all-time England legends (for James Anderson and Stuart Broad now, read David Gower and Ian Botham then), and the investment in a gang of impressionable rookies, charged with nothing more complicated than looking to the example of their captain for clues as to how to seed their own revivals.
"[The players] have the best possible example right there with them in the dressing room in Joe Root, in terms of what world-class performance looks like," Strauss said at Lord's last week, in perhaps the first real attempt to frame Root's otherwise questionable leadership credentials in unequivocally positive terms. "That has to be their ambition, to reach that level of performance."
Strauss has previous in this regard of course - specifically where the two most totemic men in his sights are concerned. Back in the spring of 2015, in his first incarnation as director of cricket, Strauss followed up his dismissal of Peter Moores as head coach by backing the incumbent captain, Eoin Morgan, and sanctioning an ODI squad to face New Zealand that had neither Anderson nor Broad in its ranks … nor Gary Ballance, Ravi Bopara and Ian Bell, to name the other men who never played in coloured clothes again after that winter's abject World Cup showing.
It just so happens that the white-ball squad never looked back after that - and that's a precedent that won't have been lost on Strauss either, as he banks on a similar shock to the red-ball system providing equally tangible short-term gains.
When asked last week about the message that Silverwood's sacking would send, Strauss had hinted that he was only just getting started on the unleashing of ructions within the squad. Throughout the Ashes, England's previous management had been broadly protective of their team's on-field failings, citing bubble fatigue and rain-wrecked build-ups, rather than address the huge technical shortcomings that had allowed Australia to run riot in the key moments, and prevent their opponents from reaching 300 in any one of their ten innings of the series.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see performances have been poor for the last 12 months," Strauss said. "Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves. The players have to … get better. International cricket is a tough old gig and you have to have resilience, toughness, you have to want it."
And so, the question has been posed to every man in the squad - directly through the ditching of eight men who featured in the Ashes, and indirectly through the retention of a select few whose places will now be challenged by the likes of Alex Lees and Saqib Mahmood. Do you want it? Genuinely?
On the face of it, Strauss appears to have asked the right question of the wrong two people. Of all the myriad failures during the Ashes, the contributions of two veteran seamers who averaged 23 and 26 respectively would appear to be low on the list. And yet, there was a sense in the course of the Ashes - most particularly after the Adelaide defeat, when Root complained publicly about the defensive lengths that his senior pairing had bowled, but again at Sydney, when Broad's refreshing but condemnatory monologue laid the squad's failings straight back at the door of the batters - that the captain's view of the campaign didn't entirely chime with the views of his key lieutenants.
Either way, the irony of the situation will not be lost on Anderson and Broad, for their pre-eminence as a pairing has scarcely been challenged for 14 mighty years - ever since the famous moment at Wellington in 2008, when the same question was posed to their own new-ball forebears, Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard.
It's already been made clear by the ECB that this does not need to be the end of the line for either man. Indeed, history shows that that moment of baton-passing at the Basin Reserve was not the final sign-off for Harmison - he flitted about the margins for another 18 months before bowing out in glory with England's Ashes recapture at The Oval. Hoggard, however, never played again, despite having seemed the only seamer still at the races on that Ashes whitewash the previous winter. The end for elite sportsmen, just like politicians, tends to be swift, surprising and distinctly unglamorous compared to the status they had previously taken for granted.
So, here we go then, with the question that may come to define the summer of 2022, and by proxy, England's fortunes therein. Do England's most garlanded fast bowlers genuinely retain the hunger to redouble their efforts in the early weeks of the English season, and rip back that shirt that has been so unjustly swiped from them? Or is this a cunning display of bluff-calling from Strauss - a team-mate who went through his own moment of reckoning on that quietly seminal New Zealand tour, and a captain who knows better than anyone what this pairing's pomp was truly like, as they led the push to England's No.1 Test ranking way back in 2011.
The easy option would be to retire and soak up the plaudits for two of cricket's most remarkable careers, but that of course is precisely the point. If anyone is expecting to be able to take the easy option for England, at this abject juncture of their Test-match story, then there's no point in coming on board.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket