James Anderson’s retirement: Why England will become more watchable without their most watchable bowler

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This too shall pass. Barring injury, James Anderson will play his final Test at Lord’s in July. “It feels like a good time,” he said – which isn’t at all how it felt when we first heard the news. Our immediate reaction was to think, “No, carry on. Just play forever. There is no good time to play your final Test.”

By at least one measure, Anderson has been England’s most watchable bowler. Maybe even their most watchable cricketer full stop. Having made his Test debut in 2003, he may also be the most watched (albeit largely via highlights since 2006).

There are bowlers who have more straightforwardly commanded attention at times. Even as it was happening, Jofra Archer’s spell to Steve Smith in 2019 felt like something we’d be talking about for years to come; Stuart Broad famously had his Stuart Broad Spells; while Mark Wood is the man who has most frequently made us think, ‘ooh, this could be something…” in recent times.

But no-one else has been a benchmark in quite the same way.

Swing bowling? Do this…

While Anderson’s bowling has broadened and adapted and evolved, the essence of Jimmy is that he essentially mastered swing bowling (insofar as that’s possible with such a fickle art). This meant some of his matches felt like demonstrations of that particular aspect of cricket.

Have you ever wondered how a bowler should approach and shape a spell when the ball is swinging a bit? We’ve all got a decent idea, but if you want the definitive answer, go to the authority on the subject. Go to Jimmy Anderson.

For a while there, it felt like a real privilege. Every Test was another instalment. No opening spell was to be missed.

Was the new ball going to swing? If Jimmy didn’t get it to move much then you assumed it simply wasn’t possible that day. Maybe once the lacquer had worn off after three or four overs. Ah yes, there it goes.

Now how should you go about setting a batter up? Let’s see…

Who’s sated?

James Anderson’s most extraordinary characteristic – the one that underpins every aspect of his genius – is his sheer appetite for this stuff. We can only presume he has some sort of parasitic infestation that eats up all of the emotional experiences that should have long since eroded his enthusiasm for Test cricket.

This game is unforgiving, but for what will presumably end up being 188 Test matches, Jimmy has found endless motivations to turn himself inside-out again and again and again.

Last year we wrote an article about exactly this headlined What James Anderson bowling in a bobble hat tells us about ourselves. The first line asserts with total confidence that there is “undeniably” something wrong with the lad.

But when it comes to his retirement, and our attitudes to it, this is precisely the thing. To whatever extent you’re infatuated with Test cricket, you aren’t likely to be quite so monomaniacal as James Anderson. For all that swing bowling masterclasses have entranced us over the years; for all that we’ll bitch and moan about the quality of his replacements and complain about them ‘wasting the new ball’, there’ll be a freshness about it.

Great cricketers are watchable, excellence is absorbing, but recurring experiences unavoidably go stale. It’s not that there aren’t nuances to Anderson’s shifting brilliance; the expansion of his skills and their deployment in different scenarios has fascinated too, but at the same time… we’ve kind of seen this one before, haven’t we?

A constant

In 2020, we put together an XI of England cricketers we’ve invested in the most. We put Jimmy at 10, because it was a cricket team, but if we were to rank those players according to the qualification requirement, he would be number one.

Largely due to the serendipity of working with a James Anderson who liked cricket at precisely the time James Anderson the cricketer made his first-class debut for the county that we both supported, we have followed his professional career very closely, pretty much from start to finish. His departure should, really, leave a gigantic hole. But in a way we welcome that.

Because what else is there to say about James Anderson’s bowling? Brilliance is brilliance, but plainly and simply the law of diminishing returns cannot help but apply. For all the tweaks and innovations, we all know what James Anderson is fundamentally all about. There isn’t even much left to say about his durability by this point because we’ve been talking about ‘life after Anderson’ for near enough a decade already.

He might well be our all-time favourite England cricketer, but despite our best efforts there is undeniably a degree of numbness by this point. Sadness at his departure can therefore be weighed against excitement that this numbness is about to go away.

What’s next?

A recurring theme of this website is that top level sport isn’t purely about excellence. From tail-end batting to part-time bowling, it can often be frailties that make a passage of play more memorable.

If the players themselves are striving for perfection, for onlookers much of the drama and intrigue arises from how they fall short of that.

We’ll miss Anderson when he’s gone, but in a way we need to miss him because now there will be that much more to feel and talk about. To think that there are whole generations of England fans who have never once experienced the electric frustration of watching two opening bowlers completely piss away the new ball. Let us tell you right now, that kind of experience can elicit some pretty strong emotions.

Cricket goes on, and cricket abhors a vacuum. We’re kind of looking forward to seeing what fills the void – because something will.

We’ll miss the reverse sweep though.

Further reading: Jimmy Anderson, majestic island of chuntering irritation and sadness

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  1. It feels cruel that he won’t have one more chance to run in from the James Anderson End for England.

    Hopefully he decides to play a few more games for Lancashire so that he gets a proper send-off from the Old Trafford faithful, it sounds a bit like the news has some out before he’s really decided what he’s doing for the rest of the season, let alone the rest of his actual life.

  2. Oh I feel sad. I can’t believe we won’t sit there singing “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Anderson” ever again.

  3. I’ve got a 4 day ticket to watch Lancs play at Southport next month purely for the possibility he might be playing.

  4. I’ll be there for the grand finale.

    Rare for Lord’s to be the home of a planned goodbye. Fitting in some ways as the boy bowled so bloody well at Lord’s and made his test debut there. Old Trafford would feel even more fitting, though.

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