Age shall not weary indefatigable attack leader
Anderson answers doubters as he continues to push back frontiers by proving pacemen can thrive in their late thirties
It was nearly 4.30pm, and James Anderson was sore. After bowling 15 of the 40 overs of the Pakistan first innings, he had just been hauled out of the attack, a cricketer who had earned a break.
The first ball of Stuart Broad’s spell invited a drive from Babar Azam. The delivery was returned with interest, thundering to Broad’s right and through mid-on. Then, it was intercepted by Anderson’s outstretched left hand, as he dived at full length. Here was affirmation that Anderson’s desire to compete in an England shirt remains utterly undimmed by his 38 years, just as he had proclaimed before this second Test.
Even for a cricketer with Anderson’s achievements, such words count for only so much. And so, when Anderson was entrusted with the first ball of the game, he faced a degree of scrutiny about his place, something he has not encountered for the previous decade.
His excellence has been accepted; now, after six wickets at 41 in his three Tests this summer, it felt oddly uncertain. While Anderson had been unfortunate at times – most obviously in Ben Stokes dropping Abid Ali during Pakistan’s second innings at Emirates Old Trafford – only wickets could bring reassurance.
Happily, such reassurance took just eight balls: that was all the time Anderson needed to trap Shan Masood lbw, late on a swinging delivery. Anderson’s grin was one part joy, one part relief. It was the prelude to an opening spell that was as probing as Anderson’s norm, combining late away movement with varying his angle on the crease, lacking only the varnish of further wickets.
Anderson’s follow-up spell was as exacting. While this was an overcast day, the control, movement and zip in his 10-over spell – traversing several stoppages – when the ball was slightly older suggested a bowler who can still be incisive in the middle of the innings. Anderson could easily have been rewarded with far more than a second wicket, when Azhar Ali edged an immaculate delivery to slip.
Perhaps most revealing of all was how, as he bowled all bar five of the first 20 overs from the hotel end, Anderson had resumed his role as attack leader. Even with four swing bowlers, it was Anderson whom Joe Root trusted most to exploit the overcast skies. As he ended the truncated day with two for 35 from his 15 overs, Anderson had produced his most impressive bowling of the summer.
Yet the biggest difference of all was perhaps less the quality of Anderson’s bowling than his luck; this time, it was his team-mates who suffered from dropped catches. There is no evidence of Anderson’s swiftness being diminished. His average speed this summer is 83.5mph – his highest since 2014, and even higher this
Even with four swing bowlers, it was Anderson whom Joe Root trusted to exploit the laden skies
Test. If speed will ultimately be the barometer of Anderson’s decline, then his demise, like that of Mark Twain, has been exaggerated.
For Anderson, all that talk of decline and retirement is understandably irksome. But, really, he only has himself to blame: Anderson, you see, is in uncharted territory, challenging our understanding of how long a fast-bowling career can be. Anderson has not just taken more Test wickets than any other pace bowler in history. He has already bowled more than 3,000 more deliveries in Test cricket than anyone else.
Now, he is tasked with a new frontier: showing that fast bowlers can still thrive in their late thirties. Only two Test seamers in history – Sydney Barnes, whose career ended in 1914, and Courtney Walsh – have topped 35 Test wickets after reaching 38, the age Anderson reached a fortnight ago.
The notion of a 39-year-old Anderson touring Australia next year still feels outlandish, but so did the idea of Roger Federer winning grand slam titles after turning 35, or Tom Brady winning the Super Bowl aged 41.
Perhaps, rather than speculate on when Anderson’s remarkable journey will end, we should simply enjoy it while we still can.