England v India: James Anderson stands tall in era of ageless champions
September 2035. The Oval. The final Ashes Test of the summer.
As England celebrate a 4-1 series win, playing the sort of hyper-aggressive Test cricket they learned in The Hundred, a 37-year-old Sam Curran calls time on his international career.
“It’s a dream,” says Curran. “Not only to end like this on my home ground, but to do so sharing the wickets with Jimmy. We’ve had such a strong new-ball partnership over the past decade.”
Curran spots his fellow opening bowler and beckons James Anderson over into the spotlight.
“I’m so pleased for him,” says Anderson, 53 and in sight of his 1,200th Test wicket. “Of course I’ll miss him, but I’ll enjoy watching him make a fool of himself on Strictly Come Skateboarding.
“Yes, we’ll need to find a new opening bowler, but we thought that when Stuart Broad retired. And Chris Woakes. And Ollie Robinson. And Jofra Archer.”
We live in the age of the ageless sporting champion.
Tom Brady guided the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to Super Bowl success at 43. A 36-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo was joint-top-scorer at Euro 2020. Germany’s Dorothee Schneider took team dressage gold at the Tokyo Olympics aged 52. Roger Federer is having knee surgery in the hope he can extend his career further into his forties.
Aged 39 years and 26 days, and taking 3-6 to set England on the way to dismissing India for a paltry 78, James Anderson is alongside the modern megastars drinking the elixir of eternal class.
Not a veteran, but an absolute master of his craft capable of making a cricket ball dance with a tiny movement of his fingertips. Not ageing like a fine wine, but turning water into wine.
Anderson’s bowling average in 2021 – 19.51 – is his best in a calendar year since 2017 and the second-best of a Test career that began in 2003.
On average, he is bowling quicker this summer than he did in 2015 and was England’s fastest bowler on the first day of the third Test at Headingley.
Longevity does not happen by accident. It is a way of life.
In early 2018, Anderson joined the BBC Test Match Special team to commentate on England’s one-day series in Australia. He had just been part of the side hammered 4-0 in the Ashes. He was grumpy.
“Why does everyone in the media keep saying I won’t tour Australia again?” he said.
“Of course I’ll be back. Why would I want my last memory of playing in Australia to be this?”
Earlier this summer, Anderson was back with the BBC, covering a one-day international at Emirates Riverside.
England hurried to victory over Sri Lanka, allowing everyone to watch the Euro 2020 last-16 match between England and Germany.
Not Anderson – a football fan, remember. He was in his training gear, bowling on the square.
In the past he has spoken about ways he might extend his career, even if the notion of a vegan diet never came to fruition.
“As I get older, I feel like I have to work that little bit harder in the gym,” he said on Wednesday. “I feel like I bowl less in the nets, and try to save it for when it matters in the middle.
“The biggest test in Test cricket is mentally, getting yourself up for bowling big spells and playing in big games. That is something I’ve always had.”
Delivering 35,334 balls in Test cricket takes its toll, even if you have got an action as smooth as George Clooney sidling up to your wife and asking if she would like to dance.
There have been times when Anderson’s right shoulder has hurt so much he couldn’t lift a toothbrush to his mouth. He says his quads can be on fire when he has his first “sit-down wee” of the day.
“It still hurts,” he said. “You find a way of putting up with it.
“Walking off the pitch during the second Test at Lord’s, pretty much everything hurt, but that gives so much satisfaction knowing that I have put a shift in for the team.”
It’s not just the wear and tear.
For every Test Anderson takes the ball, he must also bat.
The way England have been batting lately, the time Anderson has between removing his bowling boots and strapping on his pads rarely spans the length of an episode of his Tailenders podcast.
When he gets to the middle, he faces the prospect of being bombarded in the sort of fashion Jasprit Bumrah dished out in a frightening barrage of bouncers at Lord’s, when Anderson said it felt like Bumrah wasn’t even trying to get him out.
Still, Anderson has had his revenge. Not through the basic intimidation of short balls, but through surgically dismantling the India top order on a masterful morning at Headingley. In the right hands, a scalpel is just as dangerous as a sledgehammer.
This was an exhibition in how to take advantage of a hint of movement, maintain a metronomic control of length and provide an examination that India failed with spectacular consequences.
In took only five balls before KL Rahul was sucked into a needless drive. Cheteshwar Pujara played an arcing outswinger like a man whose boots had been filled with concrete.
The headline act, main course and coup de grace was finding the edge of Virat Kohli, who must have his nightmares stalked by the man from Burnley. Seven times Anderson has dismissed Kohli in Test cricket – no-one else has done so more often.
This was Anderson not only setting the scene for England’s best day of Test cricket this summer, but also reversing the momentum from the horror show that was the end of the second Test and perhaps altering the course of a series that India were on the brink of controlling.
His figures were immaculate. Three wickets for six runs from eight overs, with five maidens. He was not required to bowl again, as three other pace bowlers – all at least 10 years his junior and including one that was only four years old when Anderson made his Test debut – hustled through the India middle and lower order.
It seems increasingly pointless to speculate over how long Anderson might be able to continue.
He dropped a hint during the second Test, when he said he hopes his five-wicket haul would not be the last time he appears on the Lord’s honour’s board. He will be nearly 41 by the time England play there again.
Then again, maybe England’s problem will not be replacing Anderson, but finding the partners to bowl at the other end.