James Anderson in bowling action for Lancashire during Lancashire CCC vs Essex CCC

Playing the long game

James Anderson: the grandfather figure in the England dressing room

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Twenty years ago this May, George W Bush had just declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, Rishi Sunak was a 23-year-old analyst at Goldman Sachs, the European Union had only 15 member states and Netflix was a DVD mail-order business. And a whippet-thin fast bowler with peroxide-tipped spiky hair took his first three wickets in Test cricket by hitting middle stump each time.

Anderson has taken 202 wickets at a phenomenal average of 20.56 runs apiece

Not bad for a lad who was playing club cricket for Burnley the previous summer (though the manner of those dismissals may say something about the defensive skills of Zimbabwe’s batsmen as much as James Anderson’s ability to swing the ball). His first innings at Lord’s, which began with a disastrous over costing 17 runs, ended with him knocking Douglas Hondo’s off stump out of the ground. Five wickets for Jimmy and a place on the honours board.

Fourteen years later, Anderson was on the board again when he took his 500th Test wicket the same way as his first, moving the ball down the slope to hit Kraigg Brathwaite’s middle stump on his way to taking a career-best seven for 42 against West Indies. He had just turned 35, an age when most fast bowlers are off to the glue factory, and was about to enter the most successful period of his career. And it’s not over.

Since that 35th birthday, Anderson has taken 202 wickets at a phenomenal average of 20.56 runs apiece. Only three other fast bowlers — Courtney Walsh, Sydney Barnes and Richard Hadlee — took even 100 at such an age. In February, Anderson became the number one bowler in the world rankings, the first forty-something rated that high since the Aussie spinner, Clarrie Grimmett, in 1936. “I can’t see him stopping,” said Ben Stokes, his England captain. “He’s just relentless.”

Anderson is now a grandfather figure in the England dressing room. Leicestershire leg spinner Rehan Ahmed made his Test debut in December aged 18. He was born on the day that Anderson took his 29th Test wicket. The old man will probably still be going when Ahmed retires. His hair, now sensibly cut, may be greying but his physique and fitness would shame some ten years younger.

Despite that early success, he couldn’t force his way into the attack for the Ashes series in 2005 and after 20 Tests, in 2007, his average was hovering around 40, when it should be nearer 30. He was reborn that winter when united for the first time with the man who has been his hunting partner ever since: Stuart Broad. They have now taken 1,000 Test wickets when playing together, a world record.

They complement each other well. When on fire, Broad can run through batsmen like a bad prawn jalfrezi. But he has more off-days. There are few fireworks from Anderson, just a reliably nagging line outside off stump with enough swing to clip the outside edge or move through a carelessly left gate. You can’t nod off against Jimmy: almost every ball is a test of judgement.

James Anderson in 2003. (Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

So many English landmarks are now specks in his rearview mirror, with only Broad, who has 576 wickets, within 300 of Anderson’s 685. Brian Statham’s record of 252 by a Lancashire bowler was passed in 2012; Fred Trueman’s 307, once a world record, went the next summer; Ian Botham’s 383 fell in 2015.

When Trueman was asked if anyone would ever break his record, he replied: “Aye, but he will be bloody tired.” Workloads were heavier for bowlers in those days, of course. Trueman sent down more than 100,000 balls as a professional cricketer; Anderson has bowled about 70,000. That raises the question of how many more miles he has in the tank. He no longer plays one-day matches: if he stays fit and remains one of the world’s best, could he play into his mid-forties?

Sir John Berry “Jack” Hobbs (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images)

Only two men, both slow bowlers, have taken more Test wickets and he could pass Shane Warne’s 708 this summer. It would take three more good years, though, to approach Muttiah Muralitharan’s 800. Is that a realistic goal? A century ago this May, a 40-year-old Jack Hobbs hit his 100th first-class century and would go on to make almost 100 more, with his final Test coming at 47.

Stanley Matthews was named European Footballer of the Year at 41 and was still playing in the top flight when he was 50. Dara Torres, an American swimmer, came within one hundredth of a second of winning the 50m freestyle gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when she was 41, 24 years after her first Games.

If Tom Brady can win a Super Bowl at 43, then why shouldn’t Anderson play a few more Test series? George Foreman was 45 when he regained the world heavyweight boxing crown; Phil Mickelson almost 51 when he won golf’s US PGA title. Oscar Swahn, a Swede with a magnificent beard, won an Olympic shooting gold at 64.

And what about Yuichiro Miura? The Japanese adventurer climbed Everest at the age of 80 in 2013. Now there’s a proper goal for young Anderson. We know from his Lord’s record that he’s good with slopes.

In reality, we are nearing Götterjimmerung, the twilight of the god. Twenty20 cricket, when bowlers can make hundreds of thousands of pounds by bowling just four overs a day, is making the five-day slog unattractive for many. Asked last year if anyone will approach his record, save Broad, Anderson had a realistic, if saddening, response. “Definitely not,” he said. “No one will be stupid enough.”

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