Has injured fast bowler James Anderson played his last Test for England?

Was Cape Town James Anderson's swansong?
Was Cape Town James Anderson's swansong?

With news that James Anderson has been ruled out of England's tour of South Africa, Richard Mann ponders whether Cape Town was the swansong for the record-breaking fast bowler.

After flopping in the King George on Boxing Day in 2011 and then finishing a well-held third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Kauto Star ended his season by being pulled-up at the Punchestown Festival and with that, retirement not only appeared highly likely, it was being demanded by many prominent racing observers.

This was no ordinary racehorse, though, and the following November, he returned to the track to win his fourth Betfair Chase at Haydock, a breathtaking round of steeplechasing putting reigning Gold Cup champion Long Run on the back foot throughout before Kauto Star drew eight lengths clear on the run-in.

He was met by a buoyant and emotional Paul Nicholls in the winners' enclosure, the trainer vindicated by his decision to keep his charge in training when so many in sport had suggested he should do just the opposite.

A return to Kempton the following month saw Kauto Star win his fifth King George with another memorable performance - Long Run again left trailing in his wake - but while racing revelled in the glory of its champion having returned to the summit of the sport, it was hard to shake the feeling that this was only ever going to be a fleeting renaissance.

And so it proved. Kauto Star's bid for a third Cheltenham Gold Cup the following March ended before halfway, and just like that it was over. A magnificent career finally brought to an end a year later than many had expected, two more famous Grade One wins to his name after an early-season resurgence that served to provide one final reminder of Kauto Star's unquestionable quality.

Paul Nicholls leads the celebrations after Kauto Star's fifth win in 2011
Paul Nicholls leads the celebrations after Kauto Star's fifth win in 2011

Watching James Anderson in Cape Town this past week felt achingly similar to those final months of Kauto Star.

A brilliant seam bowler - the best England have ever produced - defying his advancing years, a growing list of injuries and the doubters to set England on course for a series-levelling victory that might well prove to be a defining moment in the captaincy of Joe Root.

Having hobbled out of last summer's Ashes after only four overs at Edgbaston back in August, and then fought, unsuccessfully, to return to fitness for the final two Tests, the chances of Anderson returning to the international stage appeared slim.

After all, the Ashes was supposed to be Anderson's swansong, the veteran paceman helping England regain the famous urn from the old enemy before saying goodbye in front of his home fans on the biggest stage of all.

Fairytales do sometimes happen in sport - just ask Alastair Cook - but as he stepped out of the limelight to consider his future, it seemed Anderson might not get his own happy ending.

In the end, the intervention of his wife, Daniella, persuaded Anderson that the time for retirement had not yet arrived and that, while his passion for taking wickets and playing for England remained so fierce, he should continue to pursue his dreams.

With his resolution reaffirmed, Anderson threw himself into the painstaking rehab needed to overcome a troublesome calf injury that had initially promised to be nothing more than an inconvenience but very nearly proved to be career-ending.

Endless hours in the gym, lengths and lengths of the swimming pool and a bowling camp in Spain slowly brought Anderson back to full fitness and when he took the field for the series opener at Centurion, he was doing so for the 150th time in a Test match, a record for a bowler and even more impressive given this feat was achieved as a fast bowler.

While clearly short of match practice there, the fact Anderson sported a new, longer run-up and bowled with improved pace throughout suggested that this latest return might just be more than a false dawn, thoughts of the next Ashes series and playing into his forties not yet dismissed.

With that blowout under his belt and speculation that he or long-time ally Stuart Broad might yet fall under the selection axe for the crucial second Test in Cape Town, Anderson responded in typical fashion, not for the first time making amends for a substandard England batting performance by bowling out the hosts for a below-par 223 and earning a priceless first innings lead for his team.

It was vintage Anderson, 19 masterful overs delivered on a sweltering South African summer day that saw all the tools of a genius at work; craft, skill, heart, determination and seemingly endless reserves of energy.

As can be the way in the ultimate test of a cricketer that is Test cricket, Anderson didn't reap the rewards of his labour immediately. Instead, he was forced to rue and curse as Rassie van der Dussen and Dean Elgar frustrated and threatened to take the game away from the tourists on an afternoon session where Anderson probed, pressed and grumbled but never once let his standards slip.

It was miserly Anderson, suffocating Anderson, relentless Anderson; the old ball offered him nothing but still he found a way to draw van der Dussen's outside edge only for the otherwise excellent Ben Stokes to spill a tough chance at second slip. More frustration, more toil.

When Joe Root called on Anderson again late in the day he had already clocked up 15 overs, but with a new ball in tow Anderson delivered a crucial spell that gave his side the ascendancy that they would never let slip.

It began with another grassed chance from Stokes at second slip but Anderson wasn't perturbed, the same combination seeing the back of Dwayne Pretorious three balls later before the day ended with the Lancashire star dismissing Keshav Maharaj.

The following morning, when the 37-year-old was entitled to have heavy legs and a stiff shoulder, Anderson began with a pinpoint outswinger that Kagiso Rabada could only edge behind before Stokes held onto another outside edge as Anrich Nortje couldn't cope with more late movement.

Anderson's final figures said it all: 19-6-40-5.

With his comeback complete, and his return to the top 10 of the ICC Test Bowling Rankings assured, England's previously disastrous tour of South Africa had finally risen from the ground with Dom Sibley's maiden Test century the following day driving them towards victory.

When England eventually declared, setting South Africa an improbable second innings chase of 438, Anderson strapped on his bowling boots once more and, like so many times before, produced a crucial breakthrough late on day four when the hosts had moved serenely to 123/1.

At 5.45pm, the pitch looking docile and as slow as it had an any stage of the match, Root called on his champion bowler for one final push and he duly delivered, Anderson refusing to move from the top of off-stump and eventually coaxing just enough movement from a previously reluctant old Kookaburra ball to graze Zubayr Hamza's outside edge and give England the opening they had been so desperately searching for.

As the sun rose ahead of a fifth day in which all three outcomes were still possible, Anderson started has he had left off the previous night, giving Pieter Malan and Faf du Plessis a torrid examination either side of pinning Maharaj lbw in a masterful spell as good as any he produced in an England shirt in recent years.

All that was left for Anderson to do was to return with the second new ball and finish the job, though when Sam Curran and Broad were entrusted with it immediately after Lunch, we were left fearing the worst. Had he, too, fallen foul of the stomach bug that had laid low many of the England camp earlier in the tour, or had that troublesome calf returned to finally claim its victim for good?

That Anderson was off the field for large parts of the middle session only increased concern and when he eventually returned, it didn't look good and our worst fears about this being a fleeting resurgence had been confirmed.

Rumours were now circulating about a side strain - a terrible injury for any fast bowler - but it was telling that despite his obvious discomfort, Anderson took the ball and got England under way after Tea, Root again handing him the ball in an hour of need regardless of the injury he had clearly suffered.

It also said everything we already know about Anderson; a lionhearted performer who would answer every call from his captain and his country, irrespective of whether it might cause the worsening of an injury that, at his age, might well prove to be the last one of his career.

This isn't the first time Anderson has put the team before himself. He ran himself into the ground when England won the Ashes in Australia in the 2010/11 series and again two years later, when George Bailey took a shattered Anderson for 28 in one over at the WACA after England's bowling stocks had been so decimated by injuries that Alastair Cook had been forced to flog his strike bowler to death.

James Anderson
James Anderson

MS Dhoni described Anderson as the 'difference' between the two sides when England claimed a watershed series victory in India in 2013 and when they lost to Pakistan on a host of lifeless pitches in Dubai in 2016, Anderson proved head and shoulders above his fast-bowling contemporaries on either side as his tireless performances earned him 13 wickets at an average of 15.61, emphatically ending the baseless argument that he is a fast bowler reliant on sporting pitches and the Dukes ball.

Fast forward to Cape Town, January 2020, in pain and in danger of causing some serious damage to his body, Anderson was wisely taken out of the attack, 18 more exemplary overs costing just 23 runs and yielding two more wickets. His final match figures reading 37-15-63-7.

Nevertheless, he wouldn't leave the field this time, instead choosing to help in any way he could and it was fitting that he held on to a sharp catch at leg slip off the bowling of Broad to finally end van der Dussen's dogged resistance that had threatened to thwart England's victory bid.

Anderson threw the ball into the air with glee and when Stokes finished the job not long after, Anderson took a stump from the ground as a memento before he and the rest of the England team made their way to over the Barmy Army to revel in the adulation and pay thanks for their magnificent support over the previous five days.

Just as the Cheltenham faithful were given the opportunity to salute their champion as Ruby Walsh trotted Kauto Star back in front of the stands at the end of his final Gold Cup run, it was only right that Anderson got to enjoy something similar in Cape Town, at the most beautiful of cricket grounds and in front of the fans who he has served so willingly and who have sung his name for so long.

If this is the end, I will be sad but I will also be grateful for this latest comeback, this fleeting renaissance that gave us one final memory of James Anderson being, well, James Anderson.

When the full diagnosis of his rib injury was made public on Wednesday night, and the confirmation that his tour of South Africa was indeed over, I couldn't help but watch back his seven wickets from Cape Town.

Happy memories to join the already long list of those Anderson has given us, ones which I want to wrap my arms around tight and never let go.

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