“Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.” A few weeks ago English cricket was thrown into a medium-sized spasm by the news that Jimmy Anderson had sustained a groin injury playing for Lancashire against Somerset. On one level it felt faintly ridiculous that England’s Ashes chances should rise or fall on the fitness of a man old enough to have bowled at Derek Randall. But the predominant sensation was really a kind of paralysing fear: the sort that grips you when you hear that an elderly relative has fallen over at home. Everyone knows the stakes here. Every twinge, every niggle and every limp now comes with a sinister metatext: “this time, you know, it might really be over”.
But still we cling, because we don’t know where else we can go. Naturally Anderson’s injury turned out to be little more than a minor setback. He will be rested for the Test against Ireland this week. And so come 16 June, in all likelihood, we will once again be treated to the sight of Anderson gingerly grimacing his way to the bowling crease: blisters popping in his boots, face writ with that peculiar mixture of acute discomfort and acute satisfaction. Anderson, more than any bowler of his generation, has learned to associate pain with reward. This thing is supposed to hurt. That’s how you know it’s worth it.
And this really is the end now. Maybe not the last summer, but almost certainly the last Ashes. Perhaps we can still just about glimpse a 39-year-old Stuart Broad tearing in at the Gabba in November 2025, holding his body together for one last epic trolling of the Australian tabloids. Perhaps this time he will claim to have invented the bouncer, or state his passionate belief that he doesn’t regard the Kookaburra as a real cricket ball. We can only hope. But for Anderson, this is it. Injury restricted him to just two-and-a-half Tests in 2015, just four overs in 2019, and only the most incorrigible of optimists would put him down for a full set this time.
This is no nostalgia trip, and in any case the retrospectives have all been done to death. There is nothing new to say about Anderson’s career arc: the flying debut, the Loughborough vandalism, the wobble wizard, the elder statesman, and so on. Rather, I’m more interested in what comes next. Because paradoxically it feels like the longer Anderson goes on, the harder it’s going to be when he finally leaves. This is a guy who has been defying retirement speculation for almost 10 years, to the point where we can almost delude ourselves that the moment will never come. The moment is now coming, and we are less prepared for it than ever before.
The most pertinent and least interesting question is who replaces him. The short answer is nobody. You don’t really replace two decades of finely honed craft, the genius locked in those fingers and wrists, the database stored beneath those greying temples. About the most you can really say is that somebody else will play instead of him, whether it be Matt Potts or Olly Stone, Josh Tongue or Chris Woakes. That part will be fine.
But of course Anderson is more than his limbs, more than his labour, more than his records, more than simply another guy in a cap. And when he goes he will take with him not just his skills but an idea: the idea that playing Test cricket for England can be a vocation. Not just an ambition. Not just part of a career. Not just a string to a bow. But the sort of thing to which one devotes their life, their waking moments, an end to which every fibre of improvement is directed. This, I think, is the part we are not remotely prepared for.
That England have fine, passionate, dedicated Test cricketers right now is not the point. Joe Root is 32. Jonny Bairstow is 33. Ben Stokes is 31. Ollie Robinson is 29. These are not the people who are going to keep the torch burning. A more relevant question: what does Harry Brook or Will Jacks or Rehan Ahmed want? Or to rephrase: what is the market going to allow them to want? Brook loves playing Test cricket and has the talent to win as many caps as he wants, to break every batting record in the book.
But Brook also earned £1.3m playing in this season’s Indian Premier League, where seven of the 10 sides also own franchises in other global leagues. When the 12-month Twenty20 contract inevitably drops, will it even allow him to have a 100-Test career? Will it allow him the blocks of training he needs to hone his red-ball skills? Or will Test cricket simply be an adornment, a side hustle, something he squeezes in around his day job? Are we ever going to find out if Sam Curran could have had a Test career? Is Jofra Archer ever going to bowl a red ball again?
Test cricket itself regenerates and replenishes. That’s what it does. The institution itself will survive. But when it loses a champion like Anderson, it also loses something of itself in the process, and sometimes it grows back and sometimes it doesn’t. What comes after Anderson? What comes after Nathan Lyon? What comes after Virat Kohli or Dean Elgar or Tim Southee? All we can say with any certainty is that it’s going to hurt. And that’s how we’ll know it was worth it.