13 May 2024

Cricket: 'Ruthless England make right decision on Anderson'

2:28 pm on 13 May 2024

By Stephan Shemilt, BBC

James Anderson.

Photo: Photosport

And so begins the long goodbye.

It is always head coach Brendon McCullum, rather than captain Ben Stokes, that delivers news to England players, whether it be good or bad.

This must have been the hardest, even for a master man-manager like McCullum. To look James Anderson - England's greatest fast bowler of all time - in the eye and tell him it is time to move on.

Not quite Old Yeller or Lenny in Of Mice and Men, but a mortal wound delivered on a round of golf. If the Stokes-McCullum era is an epic sporting drama leading to a finale in Australia, then a beloved character has just been written out of the story. Dumbledore is dead.

Anderson deserved a face-to-face explanation, even if that meant McCullum being more than 11,000 miles away from home. Stokes would have been well aware, completing the circle of the skipper bringing Anderson in from the cold when he took the helm two years ago.

Any suggestion of a cosy England dressing room, of a lack of accountability - so long as the Bazball Kool-Aid is guzzled - should be gone. This is a ruthless decision by Stokes and McCullum, who are born winners in charge of a team not currently winning.

McCullum talks about "planning to live forever, but living like you will die tomorrow".

England captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum.

England coach Brendon McCullum and skipper Ben Stokes. Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com/Photosport

England's forever is the Ashes and so Anderson, who will be 43 when the plane touches down in Australia at the end of 2025, has been tapped on the shoulder.

Anderson has known for some time, but the secret was accelerated when the story broke on Friday.

He was with Lancashire at Trent Bridge this week, but his Red Rose team-mates had no idea. Some of Anderson's closest friends from the England team did not know, either.

A 700th Test wicket, an Everest of an achievement for a fast bowler and reached in the foothills of the Himalayas in March, felt like a full stop. If the milestone had been hit in the Ashes last summer, maybe Anderson would have walked off The Oval arm in arm with Stuart Broad.

Anderson remains in impeccable physical condition. Disappointed by only taking five wickets in the Ashes, he hired a public running track to improve the speed of his run-up.

He turned up in India as fit as ever. Lithe, with abs chiselled from granite and blond in his hair, he looked like WWE wrestler Cody Rhodes.

But the output has dipped. Just 15 wickets in his past eight Tests, compared to the 38 Broad took in his final eight. Anderson may have taken a hatful against West Indies and Sri Lanka this summer, but that would have only kicked the can down the road. It is the right decision.

For all their talk of revolutionising Test cricket, Stokes and McCullum are quietly regenerating the England team.

Stuart Broad and James Anderson of England leave the field as the match ends in a draw. Fourth Ashes test, Sydney, Jan 2022.

James Anderson and Chris Broad leave the field in the drawn fourth Ashes test in Sydney in 2022. Photo: © Action Plus

Broad and Anderson will exit in back-to-back home Tests, albeit a year apart.

In the search for the cutting edge England crave down under, the likes of Matthew Potts, Gus Atkinson and Josh Tongue wait in the wings to join Mark Wood and (hopefully) Jofra Archer. One wonders what this might mean for Chris Woakes' future prospects, while Ollie Robinson has work to do to get back in favour.

Depending on decisions made over the wicketkeeping and spin-bowling spots, we may not be far away from an England team where only Stokes and Joe Root are north of 30.

The finale to Anderson's career is only one Test, but with that match being two months away, this will be an unusually extensive farewell.

Broad announced his departure midway through his last Test, while Alastair Cook only let on just before his. Further back, Andrew Strauss waited until he had played his last game before telling the world and Nasser Hussain called it quits straight after a match-winning hundred. English cricket seldom does David Warner-style victory laps.

Think of the occasion. The first Test against West Indies at Lord's in July. The man with the most Test wickets for England, with more victims than any other pace bowler and with the most scalps at the home of cricket ending on the ground where it began 21 years ago. The grand old man going out on the grandest stage of them all.

There will be plenty of time for tributes to a player that has been a constant presence at the top of English cricket for more than two decades. Anderson has played alongside some men born after he made his debut and there will be supporters in their late 20s or early 30s who can't remember an England team without him.

Strauss made his England debut after Anderson, won 100 caps and played his last Test 12 years ago. As did Cook (161 caps, last Test six years ago), Ian Bell (118, nine years) and Kevin Pietersen (104, 10 years). The 188 caps Anderson will end on is a mind-boggling number for a fast bowler. Had he done a less physically demanding job - batting, for example - over the same 21 years, he would have probably played 250 Tests.

Some will say Anderson's third place in the all-time list of leading Test wicket-takers is inflated by the number of games he played, that he does not deserve to be above fellow pacers Glenn McGrath, Dale Steyn, Richard Hadlee or Wasim Akram.

But availability is the best ability. Anderson has aged better than George Clooney, mastering his craft and grooving his action to give the impression he has completed fast bowling. He is the man who had a broken back and recovered to make back-breaking work appear effortless.

Anderson is arguably the most skilful cricketer England have ever produced, sits in the highest echelons of the greats of the game and is a giant of British sport.

Jimmy being Jimmy, at his happiest when he is grumpy, the idea of a farewell Test, when the spotlight is on a celebration of all things Anderson probably fills him with dread.

He might hate every second, but he deserves every moment.

- This story was first published by the BBC.