Jimmy Anderson walked into the indoor nets at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and slumped into the first available chair. His eyes were weary. His boots were scuffed. His trousers were soaked in blood, a fielding injury from Adelaide two Tests earlier which had never been allowed to heal. The fourth Ashes Test of 2017-18 had just ended in an excruciating draw, Anderson had just bowled 59 thankless overs and only a lunatic would have entertained the notion that he would be back at this very ground in four years’ time for more of the same.
A lunatic such as Jimmy Anderson, in other words. For in the last week of 2021, here he was: a fresh set of whites, a fresh set of stumps, a fresh set of edges, a fresh haul of victims. And even if England’s latest batting collapse extinguished any faint hope that his four for 33 might prove an Ashes-saving effort, then in many ways this is to capture the very essence of late-career Anderson: a bowler steadily getting better and better, even as his team gets worse and worse.
Certainly it looks less enjoyable than it once did. Anderson with the ball in his hand always had a certain sullenness to him, the knack of making professional sport look like hard labour. But something has changed, too.
The catches go down with increasing frequency. So too the amount of time he gets to spend in the dressing room putting his feet up. And whereas peak Anderson was once one of the primary attacking weapons in the game, for the last few years he has been more often deployed in defence: chasing lost causes, bailing out failing batters.
And so to watch Anderson these days is a curiously draining experience. The wickets are met with a snarl, the plays-and-misses with a grimace. There was a moment on the second evening when Jonny Bairstow ran round from deep midwicket to save a second run, but made the mistake of returning the ball on the half-volley instead of on the bounce. Anderson was still glaring at him a full 10 seconds later.
The scars of battle may be largely psychological, but still visible for that. This will be his 60th Test defeat. Only Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul have lost more. Only Allan Border and Kim Hughes – both Australians, you will note – will have lost more Tests in Australia. Only Muttiah Muralitharan and Courtney Walsh have taken more wickets in defeat.
If we accept the modern pro’s maxim that personal accomplishments are largely irrelevant and only team success matters, then it turns out Anderson has done a lot of running and bowling and glowering and bleeding in a pointless cause. What, then, was the point?
Perhaps, at heart, it really is just a numbers game. Not milestones or statistics – Anderson never paid much heed to those – but the singular, fiscal pursuit of the highest number of wickets for the fewest possible runs. Some of his recent analyses – 23-10-33-4, 10-6-8-1 – have an antediluvian, black-and-white feel to them. You need to go back 24 innings to find the last time he went at more than three runs an over.
Anderson is 39 now, and no longer the sort of bowler who runs through a team or blazes his way through an entire summer. It is more than three years since he played a full five-Test series. His moments are rarer now.
But when conditions are good and the ball is doing a bit, there are still few bowlers you would rather watch.
The Lord’s Test against India was one such occasion. Now, on an unseasonably green MCG wicket, he stepped up again. The dangerous Steve Smith was dismissed with barely a flicker of resistance. Marcus Harris was bewitched and tortured from around the wicket before inevitably offering up a catch to slip. And though Pat Cummins tried to cut loose against the second new ball, Anderson ended up getting him too: a rare short delivery that Cummins could only skew to point.
But of course, Anderson can only do it in England. Never mind that he now averages fractionally better (a shade over 33) in away Ashes Tests than he does at home. Or that he averages 12 in away Tests this decade. But the caricature of Anderson as a green-wicket phenomenon remains a stubbornly persistent myth, even within his own camp. Certainly you suspect it contributed to his omission in Brisbane and subsequent rustiness in Adelaide. By the time Anderson was finally up to speed, the Ashes had all but gone.
After play, Anderson was asked if he was enjoying the tour. “I’ve got the opportunity to put an England shirt on,” he replied, and you realised that for all the pain, for all the bubbles, for all the despair and the defeat, none of this has been in vain. As the Covid scare in the England camp illustrated, Test cricket itself feels like an exceptionally fragile gift at the moment, and more fragile still in the hands of a 39-year-old fast bowler who may only have another two or three tours of Australia in him.
The feel of a new ball in his fingers; the thrill of a plan in fruition; the blood on his trousers at the end of a long hard day; for Anderson, cricket itself was the point all along.