The decline of music hall came slowly at first. By the 1930s and 1940s it had ebbed a little from its turn-of-the-century peak and was no longer the dominant form of popular entertainment. But through the Great War, the birth of jazz and swing, the spread of cinema and the gramophone, it endured. In the jaws of the television age, and to gently dwindling audiences, the stars of music hall played on, blithely oblivious to a future where people would no longer build a night out around watching a fellow singing bawdy songs about boiled beef and carrots.
This, perhaps, is what it feels like to watch Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad in the 2020s: those consummate showmen, still telling the same jokes, still playing the same classic tunes, still honing and perfecting an immaculate act that one suspects will be entirely lost on future generations. Here he comes now, young Broady – yes, we know he’s 33, but we still call him that – still putting six balls in the same place, just like they used to. Here comes old Jimmy, still finding the outside edge with the old three-inswingers-and-an‑outswinger trick. The old ones are the best.
Before England’s second Test at Cape Town there was some idle talk that it might just be time to break up the most successful fast-bowling partnership in the history of the game. Perhaps it would be Anderson, who looked a little undercooked at Centurion, to make way. Or perhaps Broad, who has spent virtually his entire career staving off rumours of his imminent demise and once again lurks tantalisingly atop the trapdoor.
In the end Jofra Archer failed to shake off an injury and Anderson and Broad responded with seven first-innings wickets between them. Point made and – with victory looking cautiously secure – question deferred, at least for now. Yet for all the warming triumph of Saturday afternoon, that familiar rustle of edges, to watch Anderson and Broad these days is also to partake of a certain nostalgic sadness, a strange and largely irrational bereavement for something not yet lost.
The glib riposte is that we should try to enjoy these two champions while we still can. Anderson, after a year of fitness issues, looks in magnificent shape. Like many of the great bowlers, highlights packages do him scant justice. You need to watch him for a day, not to see what he does but what he doesn’t. He barely wastes energy on a bouncer. He barely wastes a breath on a futile appeal. Everything is measured, streamlined, geared towards economy of movement, economy of emotion.
Of the pair it is Anderson who has the mystique: a swing bowler with the guile and repertoire of a mystery spinner. But this has always been a touch unfair on Broad, whose exhaustive search for self-improvement has also equipped him with an enviable array of tricks and tactics: a product of the constant tinkering, those hours toiling in front of a hot iPad scanning the data and scouring the videos.
This is why talk of separating them, even alternating them on a tour-by-tour basis like identical twins in a circus act, feels so wrong. Their devastating strength has always been as a partnership: some of Anderson’s greatest spells have resulted in Broad cleaning up at the other end, and vice versa. There’s always been that sly competitive streak to them, too: the tacit hierarchy whereby Anderson gets choice of ends, the professional pride that led Broad – in a rare county game against each other – to aim a vicious bouncer at Anderson’s throat.
To imagine Broad without Anderson is to imagine Flanagan without Allen, Hinge without Bracket. Yet that sense of selfless sacrifice – the idea of the noble wicketless spell, that somebody else might profit from your day’s graft – feels increasingly outdated not just in society but in a game being remodelled around the idea of the individual star, the X-factor player, the conquering hero.
Naturally neither Anderson nor Broad got much of a mention in English cricket’s orgy of self-congratulation at the end of 2019. These days to ply your trade as a Test specialist is not just to spurn wealth or wider resonance but to devote your life to a game in gentle recession. This year will have 40 Tests played, the fewest in a non-World Cup year since 1994. The idea of any fast bowler overtaking Anderson and Broad on 583 and 478 Test wickets respectively – Ishant Sharma, their nearest challenger, is on 292 – feels more laughable with each passing year.
The International Cricket Council is considering reducing Test matches to four days, an idea that for all the shrill comment it provoked is neither good nor bad but simply an extremely mild solution to what is ultimately a question of market forces. Already the best players and coaches are following the money into T20. The all-format fast bowler is increasingly becoming a chimera: Jasprit Bumrah has just returned from four months out, Kagiso Rabada has been forced to pull out of the past two Indian Premier Leagues with a back injury, Mitchell Starc has not played a domestic Twenty20 game for five years. Something, ultimately, has to give.
There is, naturally, a slight risk of alarmism here. Test cricket is not going anywhere for now. But time – and television – eventually did for the music hall and one day it will come for Anderson and Broad too. Savour them, yes. But feel, too, the immenseness of what they will take with them: not just two battered bodies or a cluster of golden memories but very possibly a way of life.