Of course it had to be James Anderson to stop Rohit Sharma in the end

James Anderson belts out an appeal
August 12, 2021

Shortly after 10am, on a grey morning at Lord's that seemed as shrouded with unanticipated gloom as the England Test team itself, a diffident figure shuffled out of the pavilion, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his training top, seemingly a man apart from his peers, and almost certainly alone with his thoughts.

For James Anderson, the script for the second Test seemed already to have been written. His demeanour at the best of times tends not to veer too far from hang-dog, but in a 9am briefing with the written media, even his big boss at the ECB, Tom Harrison, had written him off as injured; so too the MCC souvenir scorecards, which had inked Saqib Mahmood in for a debut, ahead of his return south of the river for Saturday's Oval Invincibles' clash.

All around him during the warm-ups, Anderson's colleagues were presenting a similar narrative. To a man, they were sporting Strauss Foundation red caps, specially commissioned for this match, which seemed to telegraph their involvement at his bare-headed expense. But then, almost as an afterthought, Anderson joined a half-formed circle for an impromptu game of keepie-up, and as he belied his dodgy quad by flicking out his left leg at a passing football, the jungle drums began their beat. "He can't…? He won't…? He bloody will, won't he?"

Sure enough, the Black Knight of the England dressing room was preparing to remount his horse, muttering "tis but a flesh wound!" as he warmed up on the practice pitch before slotting back in for a 164th tilt at Test cricket, and an extraordinary 25th match at Lord's alone.

In hindsight, it shouldn't have come as a surprise. Four years ago, after all, Anderson belied the inconvenience of a fractured shoulder, of all the ailments, to demand his place back for England's tour of India, of all the venues, where his lack of match fitness ended up being exposed in a 4-0 series beating, but where his unquenchable lust for combat has rarely been more obvious.

And now, in his team's hour of need, and with Stuart Broad already ruled out for the series, was it ever actually in doubt that he'd be ready? In fact, it transpired that he was more ready even than the weather - Joe Root won the toss, with no compunction about unleashing his hobbled veteran under the brooding skies, only for those same heavens to call a rain-check just as he was preparing to bowl the first ball, as if the Almighty himself was questioning the wisdom of England's all-in approach.

For it's in such moments that series are decided. Bowl first at Lord's under leaden skies? England did just that against India in the corresponding fixture three years ago, when Anderson himself claimed 5 for 20 in 13.2 overs to torpedo the visitors for 107. Rush back your creaking spearhead because you cannot countenance his absence for such a crunch clash? That was also what England chose to do at Edgbaston 12 months later at the start of the 2019 Ashes, and when Anderson's calf popped on that occasion after four overs, so too did his side's hopes of regaining the urn.

Despite Root's insistence that a scan of Anderson's thigh had come back "clear as anything", it felt like a roll of the dice one way, or another, and quite conceivably both - a desperate bid to latch onto that unlikely rain-induced let-off at Trent Bridge, and land a very English haymaker on an India team that, with bat and ball, had looked uncommonly primed for the challenge of victory in these conditions.

Instead, what we witnessed was a scene that could have been transposed from Chennai or Ahmedabad earlier this year - a transcendent Rohit Sharma, bossing every bowler bar England's senior statesman (and to a lesser degree, his admirable understudy, Ollie Robinson) and, for the best part of two sessions, outscoring his team-mate KL Rahul by more than four to one.

That's to take nothing away from Rahul's own more measured mastery, as he and Virat Kohli came out to bloom in the late-evening sun. But Rohit in particular has been threatening such a break-out performance ever since India's arrival in England. His scores on the tour to date - 34 and 30 in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand, 36 and 12 not out at Trent Bridge last week - had each been immaculate until the very moment they were not; totemic and imperturbable in the face of some of the finest new-ball bowling in the world, but as incomplete as his overseas average which, after today's away-best of 83, remains a scandalously unrepresentative 29.08 - more than 50 runs shy of his home mark of 79.52.

Of course, it had to be Anderson to stop him in the end. But not before Rohit had feasted on the men who could not match up to his methods. Sam Curran scurried with renewed licence as the fifth man of the attack, but found his quest for magic balls too easy to disassemble - not unlike Anderson at the same age, in fact - most damningly between balls 17 and 28 of his spell (to switch to a contemporary vernacular), as Rohit filleted him for six of his 11 fours, only one of which went anywhere other than intended.

Moeen Ali toiled with adequate discipline on his comeback - his judgement can be deferred on this first-day deck - but then there was Mark Wood. Unused in any format since July 1, he was unseen throughout an ominous morning session, as England strove for subtlety in still helpful conditions. Instead, they caused even less bother than they had done on an energetic fourth evening at Trent Bridge which, despite the endless oohs of ball beating bat, had still ended up being 52 for 1 by the close, and surely checkmate but for rain.

Wood bent his back with typical elan - touching 94mph early in his spell - but his average in England is now pushing 45. Before the day was done, he was leaping wide on the crease at regular intervals, and pounding it in from round the wicket in between whiles, busting a gut to force an error, in an ominous premonition of what may await in Brisbane and Adelaide this winter if England cannot find a line-up that can exert pressure for 80 overs at a time.

Anderson managed his part of the bargain, of course. But in keeping with a strange phenomenon this summer - which could be a surfeit of caution from his opponents every bit as much as a failure of Anderson's own methods - his new-ball spell went wicketless for the seventh time out of seven this summer. Eight overs for 11 was exactly as we have come to expect. Nothing given away, and no liberties taken either - a dim-and-distant echo of a bygone era of Test cricket, when the first session would be given to the bowler, and hay would be made thereafter.

As if to prove his own transcendent abilities, Anderson's breakthrough came once his quarry had settled deep into his innings. As far as Anderson's own day went, he needed just ten more balls to prise the opening, jagging one back through Rohit's gate after nibbling the previous two in the other direction. But by then he hadn't been seen for the best part of a session, and though he did his damnedest to claw back the ground that England had lost in between whiles - just as at Trent Bridge, when the Pujara and Kohli double-whammy had also come after the 40th over of the innings - the wholesale wrecking proved beyond him this time.

That's the trouble with England's methods right now. They are over-reliant on miracles from men of whom expectations are already unhealthily high - be it the burnt-out Ben Stokes or the one-man batting unit that Joe Root has become in his absence. And while Anderson, at the age of 39, is a miracle among physical specimens, it's not fair or feasible for him to presume that that tendency has to extend to every spell he bowls.

After all, he's not the messiah, he's just old man Jimmy, rolling along like a Silver Ghost - a breathtaking piece of vintage engineering, and so stunningly preserved that not even the most crass batting vandal could wish to take a lump-hammer to him (well, maybe excepting Rishabh Pant…)

It's been a year and counting since Anderson was last dispatched at more than 3 an over in any given Test innings. In that time, he's claimed 33 wickets in 16 innings, or a shade over two at a time. He's bowled 291.2 overs, or 18 and a bit per innings. He's conceded 658 runs, or an average of 41 a pop.

And therefore, today's analysis - 20-4-52-2 - wasn't far from a perfectly average example of late-stage Anderson excellence. These are standards that England take for granted at their peril, for where would they be without him? Troublingly, the evidence at the other end of the pitch - with the honourable exception of Robinson - suggested that they would be more or less as deep in the mire as they are now.

A team that has struggled to win away for the past five or more years is currently struggling to win at home with every bit as much consistency. Perhaps that script for this Test had been written in advance after all.

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