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James Anderson is never going to retire

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of winning a match at the pinnacle of a sport. At least, that’s what I presume, having never actually done so.

But taking the feeling of scoring a last-minute tap-in on a Tuesday night five-a-side and enlarging it by a factor of a thousand surely still doesn’t get close. You have to consider the baying fans, either for or against you, the weeks of practice, the pain, the pressure, the press writing you off, all made worth it in one glorious instance.

And for some, the thrill doesn’t dull. You have to only watch Andy Murray screaming in some mixture of joy and fury after taking a 2-1 lead in his US Open first-round clash against Stefanos Tsitsipas to see evidence. This is a man who has reached No.1 in the world, been an Olympic champion, won Wimbledon, so pumped up that he loses control of himself at the mere prospect of victory, having been shorn of one for longer than he’s used to.

The point is, playing sport at the top level is a drug, and that high is increased again when it comes to a Test match win, a battle of skill and wills alongside 10 blokes and against 11 others, often only decided right at the death, with the threat of it ending in a draw always hanging heavy. Anderson is hooked. And I don’t think he ever won’t be.

“Right now I don’t see why I can’t play another summer,” he writes for The Telegraph. “Playing another summer obviously means playing this winter’s Ashes. I have a tour to the West Indies in March as well that is in the plans. On Wednesday the fixtures were released for next summer. We have three Tests at the start, then a big gap in the middle to rest and recuperate, and then three Tests at the back end of the summer. It looks very manageable to me.”

It’s madness, in one way, and yet for those of us who dream of being able to do what he does, achieve what he has, it also makes perfect sense. If there’s nothing like winning a Test match, why would you stop, when you still feel able?

Still, we can joke all we like about a 60-year-old Anderson zimmer-framing up to the crease, nicking off Steve Smith Jr. in the 2042 Ashes before explaining afterwards how he still feels like he’s got the body of a 55-year-old. The end must come some time. But what does the end actually look like? What’s going to prompt him to make that final call?

There are things true of plenty others that aren’t true of Anderson. For most, international cricket is an endless cycle of struggle, doubt, resilience, vindication, and more struggle. Eventually, the churn wears you down. Think of Alastair Cook, who spoke repeatedly of having to “go back to the well”, the numerous journeys eventually tiring him out. Anderson’s cup, on the other hand, has always runneth over without needing replenishing. There has been little doubt over his skill or ability, mostly because he has, impossibly, got better as he’s got older. Instead of speculation, there’s marvel at his indefatigability, set against only a vague sense that this can’t go on forever.

While he has a family, something which might prompt others to re-evaluate their priorities, it’s no longer a young one. Anderson has weighed things up and cricket has won out. As he explains, “My family have already said they are not going to Australia. My kids are in school, the youngest has exams and there is no way they can do two weeks quarantine because by the time they come out I will be playing a Test match and might only see them for a few days before they have to go back for the start of term.”

He has had another career ticking along in the media since the early 2010s, with his involvement in various BBC projects for TMS and alongside Greg James without being tempted to pursue punditry full time.

Injuries? Well he’s already had his share, and they haven’t lessened the hunger. A shoulder injury ruined much of his 2016/17 winter, and then there was the side strain that kept him out of all but four overs of the 2019 Ashes. He admitted then that he had to be talked out of retiring by his wife, but then when he next seemed close to making a decision, announcing an unscheduled press conference after a sub-par performance against West Indies, he essentially said he was going to bowl until he dropped.

So what could stop him? A decline, maybe, forcing someone else to decide for him. And yet arguably that’s already started. He’s recorded an average of 28.94 across the last two home seasons compared to 15.86 across four summers before that. But the thing with being a seamer as good as Anderson in conditions as helpful as England’s is that you can be some distance from your best and still have a record that compares favourably to basically any other bowler in basically any other country. If the accuracy stays put, Anderson is never going to get smashed around in the eye-catching manner that provokes speculation. And even now, he is a good five miles per hour quicker, on average, than some of his teammates. There’s a distance left to drop before the questions start to come.

He’s looked at the 2022 schedule and figured, yeah, that looks doable. And you’d fancy that at the end of that summer, he’ll look at Australia touring in 2023 and aim for that too.

All that said, the end must come. It could even be soon. One serious injury or an Ashes pounding that forces England to reconsider everything they think they know could be all it takes. But as long as the possibility remains of one more Test win, one more high, it feels as if Anderson won’t be the one to make that call.

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