The James Anderson End – an elegy in four words. Or six balls. Except it isn’t. There is nothing elegiac about James Anderson, despite entering his fifth decade, despite his 100th home Test, despite a touch of grizzlement about the beard. He has got 664 Test wickets under the belt and is taking a smart right turn straight towards the next milestone.
This could be his last Test at Old Trafford. Except it won’t be. The fourth Ashes Test next July has his name all over it, as he stands slim as a broom handle at the end of his mark, white wristbands dipped in Dettol, shirt smoothed into trousers.
At his theatre, the props do what they’re told – most of the time. Fifteen minutes into the day, and from his own end, Anderson hitched up the wagon, flayed the horses and wheeled out a banger that caught the guts of the old ground.
The semi-weary early approach to the crease, a paperboy with one last round before term begins, switches into professional excellence in sight of the stumps, an around-the-wicket beauty that kept low, squeezed away and spun Dean Elgar’s rainbow-clad off stump out of the ground.
Elgar, squared up, inelegant, glimpsed behind and trudged away, giving the offending stump a woebegone tap with his bat as he went, for 11. South Africa’s captain back in the pavilion with 33 on the scoreboard and captured by Anderson for the sixth time in Tests.
Anderson, delighted, ran a semi-circular jig, arms outstretched, his teammates billowing in his wake, celebrations topped off with a high five from his buddy on the long road trip, Stuart Broad.
Old Trafford, belly bursting with spectators, rolling around the party stand as the smell of grilled lamb kebab wafted over the forecourt, milling with people dressed as traffic cones and kids playing tennis ball cricket, roared his name.
It was Anderson’s 949th international wicket, pulling him level with Glenn McGrath as the leading fast-bowling wicket-taker across all formats, seven league boots ahead of Wasim Akram in third place. It is a mouthful of a stat – in a nutshell, he is the master. However far you deep-dive into the database of dark numbers, his name always comes out on top.
Anderson, briefly, had another wicket before lunch, Keegan Petersen caught behind until he wasn’t, overturned by the hand of the TV umpire – otherwise he bided his time in the field. At mid-off, blue cap pulled right down, grimacing as Rassie van der Dussen edged past second slip, polishing the ball for Broad or down on the boundary, ready with a slow key handclap for an adequate delivery, interspersed with a flex of the fingers for something worse.
In 2015, the Manchester Evening News reported on Anderson’s 100th Test, reflecting on a “pomp which kicked in mid-career, in 2007, and is still in full flow at the age of 32.” Seven and a bit years on, Anderson is the only man to knock up three figures in Tests on home soil. With most of his potential replacements on the physio’s table, it is hard to imagine an England team without him in the near future. Joe Root did, briefly. Root is no longer the England captain.
As rain skirted the outskirts of Old Trafford in the afternoon and South Africa ploughed through to tea without losing a wicket – grinding 53 runs from the session – the crowd grew restless, but Anderson wheeled through another spell, with the pitch deadening to the touch.
But come the new ball, come the man. With the floodlights on, he nipped back Simon Harmer’s off stump to kick open the floodgates, Kagiso Rabada soon followed and South Africa were skittled in the twist of a bottle top.