England’s leading Test wicket-taker and reluctant retiree James Anderson faces up to his end-game

On the morning of the second day of the Lord’s Ashes Test in 2015, James Anderson was late getting to the ground. He was not alone: Joe Root, Mark Wood and the designated driver Stuart Broad were also behind schedule.

Australia were 337 for 1 overnight, with Steve Smith and Chris Rogers already boasting hundreds. The motivation to get to the ground on time to warm those aching joints after 90 overs in the dirt was hardly through the roof. So, the quartet did a few laps of Regent’s Park while Anderson queued up James Bay’s “Hold Back The River” on repeat, belted out louder with each rendition to the bemusement of fellow Friday commuters. Australia went on to win by 405 runs.

Nine years on, that sense of delaying the inevitable hangs heavier in NW8 for Anderson. Wednesday will be the beginning of an end to his career, a progress that could never really be fathomed until it was talked into existence during that meeting at a Manchester hotel in April.

Time has made the enforced decision a little easier to swallow. But speaking on Monday, Anderson articulated the caveats to his acceptance that planning for the next Ashes – by which point he will be 43 – is the right thing to do.

“I still feel as fit as I ever have, like I’m bowling as well as I ever have,” he said. “My record has got much better since turning 35. I still think I could do a job. But at the same time, I understand that it has to end at some point, and I completely accept – completely understand – their reasoning behind it.”

It would be pig-headed to ignore the romanticism of Anderson’s journey coming to an end at Lord’s, no matter how reluctant. This was where it all began in 2003 against Zimbabwe. And while the “Home of Cricket” has not always been kind to its legends – neither Sachin Tendulkar nor Brian Lara have centuries here – it has rewarded Anderson handsomely.
Such forewarning at least means friends and family will be able to travel down to share this final chapter. Those lucky enough to have tickets will be able to pay their respects. They may also witness an extra bit of history if he manages to overtake Shane Warne’s tally of 708 Test wickets which, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out given the setting, the anticipated overcast conditions, and considering what he did to Nottinghamshire just last week.

And yet, at the same time, the oddity of this week is inescapable. The groundswell of public opinion seems to be that this is both premature and callous. If anyone deserves to go out on their own terms, surely it’s the pace bowler with the most wickets in Test history?

“I don’t particularly like fuss,” Anderson said, knowing that is exactly what he is going to get. Had he got his way, he would not have done any media at all.

The team, by and large, have approached this Test no differently. The fallout from the 4-1 defeat in India off the back of Australia’s retention of the Ashes puts the onus on this team to refine their ways and, well, win some games. But the sight of the uncapped Dillon Pennington charging in for the best part of an hour on the Nursery Ground, after Gus Atkinson secured the last fast-bowler slot, spoke of the looming change on the horizon.

That, ultimately, is the bigger picture here, one which Anderson is keen to embrace. He was put at ease by a speech from Brendon McCullum on Sunday in the home dressing-room after the squad trained together as a group for the first time. Focussing on what happens “in these four walls” and not being distracted by any outside noise were the key takeaways.

Those are tenets that have been ever-present during McCullum’s tenure, which the head coach was keen to reinforce. But they are particularly prescient for what’s to come, and it would not be a surprise if the Kiwi made a point of reiterating them to reassure the man unwittingly front and centre this week.

“There might be a point where I start milking it,” Anderson said with a hint of sarcasm.

“I don’t know. I feel so lucky to have played for as long as I have. It feels really special that I get to play for England one more time.”

The choice of words feels particularly important. One “more” time rather than one “last” time reflects a cheerier disposition.

Growing up, Anderson yearned for “just” one chance to play Test cricket for England. And there is a beautiful tragedy to the fact his era is being brought to an end at Lord’s, where that dream first became a reality. No number of laps around Regent’s Park will put that off.

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