James Anderson proves he is as hungry and potent as ever

James Anderson gave Joe Root reasons to smile on the second afternoon at Trent Bridge
August 05, 2021

A few years shy of his 100th birthday, the comedian George Burns signed a five-year deal to perform at a Vegas hotel. Would he make it, a journalist asked? "It looks like a pretty sound business," Burns replied. "It should be OK."

James Anderson appears to be made of the same stuff. From Alec to Sam, he has been the man England teams have relied upon to exploit conditions on good days and stop the bleeding on tough ones. In his 40th year, at an age when other seam bowlers have long-since transferred to the commentary box, he remains as hungry and potent as ever.

There was some poignancy in the timing of his two-wicket burst on the second day here. It came as news emerged that Jofra Archer, the man whom many expected to succeed him as England's attack leader, had been ruled out for the rest of the year with a recurrence of an elbow injury that would appear to raise questions about his future in this format, at least. It was wretched news that will have any cricket lover, whoever they support, sick to their stomach for him. Archer is a hugely exciting 26-year-old with many unfulfilled dreams. If good wishes change anything, there are surely a few chapters left to be written in Archer's playing career.

But his struggles provide a reminder, if one were required, of the miraculous nature of Anderson's career. Opinion is divided on whether he's the best seam bowler of his era. But what can hardly be disputed is that he is the most durable. And that his durability is something almost miraculous in itself.

When he started his career (his List A debut was in 2000), T20 cricket hadn't been invented, the Dead Sea was just the Sick Sea (that's a George Burns gag) and Sam Curran was still in nappies. Now he's delivered almost 35,000 deliveries in Test cricket alone - that's nearly 5,000 more than any other seamer in history - and, with the wicket of Virat Kohli, drew level with Anil Kumble's tally of 619 Test wickets. Only two men, Shane Warne and Muthiah Muralidaran, have more.

Over that time, various players have emerged who we thought might eventually succeed him as England's attack leader. There was Steven Finn, for example. And Chris Woakes. But now we look back, it's entirely possible that Anderson will out-last them both. Chris Tremlett, with whom Anderson played in the Ashes-winning side of 2010-11, is also 39. And he's been retired for six years.

It was Anderson's reaction to the wicket of Kohli which was telling. While he barely celebrated the dismissal of Cheteshwar Pujara (who probably received the delivery of the day; a ball which demanded a stroke and left him to take the edge), the dismissal of Kohli inspired an uninhibited dash round the in-field that even Imran Tahir might have found excessive. Not just that, but it elicited the sort of unabashed smile which Anderson seldom displays on a cricket pitch. "I probably used some muscles that I don't often use there, didn't I?" he dead-panned later.

In truth, it was - by the high standards of Test cricket - a slightly loose shot from Kohli. A nervous shot, anyway. A stroke which suggested that, while Anderson had not dismissed him for seven years in Test cricket, Kohli knew he was in for a tough encounter under the sort of overcast conditions in which the bowler thrives. As a result, he pushed surprisingly hard at one he might, in retrospect, have left. Anderson was ecstatic.

"There was some emotion in the celebration," he said later. "I knew how important that was for the team. It's such a big wicket.

"To bowl the ball exactly where I wanted to, and for him to nick it.... Getting their best player doesn't happen that often. And getting Kohli out that early is quite unusual. It was just an outpouring of emotion."

While there is probably an element of freakish genetics to credit for Anderson's longevity, he has endured his own spells of disappointment and despair. In the lead-up to this game, he revealed he had come close to retiring in 2019 when it proved tough to recover from a calf injury. At other times, he has suffered a stress fracture, a serious shoulder injury and, remarkably, a broken rib caused by over-exertion. Make no mistake, Anderson has suffered for his art.

So it was no surprise that Anderson expressed great sympathy for Archer. He knows the mental pain Archer will now be experiencing and he knows how lonely and arduous the recovery process can prove. Not everyone has the drive to keep putting themselves through it.

"He's been a really influential part of the team since he started playing for England," Anderson said. "He'll be a huge miss with what's coming up in the rest of the year. But I think this injury has been bugging him for quite a while. Hopefully this can be the end of it. He's been great for this team and we want him back, fully fit and firing."

The news of Archer's injury confirmed something else that we have probably suspected for a while: if the Ashes tour goes ahead - and that may be a 50-50 call right now - it seems likely that Anderson will be the man leading England's attack. Really, it's not impossible Anderson will be fine to make the Ashes but the Ashes itself won't be able to take place. It's George Burns' joke in action.

Can England challenge in the Ashes with a 39-year-old spearhead? Well, it's not what any of us expected. And it's not what England planned. But so often has Anderson challenged our preconceptions that it seems foolish to dismiss the possibility entirely. No doubt they would have preferred he was complementing an attack which included Archer, but it is not to be.

And that, so often, has been the way of things with Anderson. When others have faltered and fallen, he has been the man that a succession of England captains - from Nasser Hussain to Andrew Strauss and Joe Root - have relied upon to fill the holes. There have been times, such as when England went to No. 1 in the Test rankings with a four-man attack, when you suspected they asked too much of him. But, equally, you suspect he rather enjoys that responsibility.

Either way, after all these years and all the success, Anderson remains the man on whom England's hopes will rest. It has been an incredible career.

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