James Anderson has played out how he will retire in his head. More specifically, the moment he knows he does not want to run in and bowl anymore.
One day, he said a few moons ago, he will wake up, bones creaking, body aching and think of the day ahead. It would not necessarily be a day's play, more likely one of training. But as he gets out of bed and comprehends the warm-up routines, the extra stretches he knows to do as a veteran of his own body, the meticulous warm-down and recovery he did not have to heed much in the past, he will, for the first time in his career, wonder what’s the point.
That doubt, he said, would be his tell, as it is for all sportsmen and women. The glass-shattering moment when the dream job finally becomes *just* a job.
On Monday morning, Anderson informed English cricket that time had not come just yet. Idle talk over the last two days of the first Test against Pakistan might have started rumours of his departure, but it was given credibility by a great fast bowler having little impact on a three-wicket win and with the body language to show for it. Match figures of one for 97 from 28 overs and clear on-field frustration at having a catch dropped off his bowling wore heavier than it ever has.
“I feel I’ve dealt with it pretty well in my career but this week I probably didn't deal with it that well,” admitted Anderson. Some might baulk at that suggestion, particularly if you have at one time or another faced down the 38-year old.
It was frustration fuelled by more than just a few awry spells and a missed dismissal or two. This has been 12 months of nuisance for Anderson with questions on how much he had left asked not just to him but his coach and captain as well. Two injuries at the beginning of key series with Australia and South Africa have added meat on those bones, but all three, for the most part, have recited from the same scorecard.
Lockdown was a bonus, buying him time for a full recovery, and then some. He returned more aerobically fit than ever before, though that is an equivocal nugget: the nature of quick bowling at Test level is a cycle of heavy workloads and recuperation, so there is little time to work on improving conventional personal bests. It's hardly like that cycle has hindered him over the previous 12 years. He is bowling 2mph quicker though.
But just as it was for the rest of us, time at home meant more walks around his own mind. Even as Anderson yearned for the game to return, his message back in March was that this could all be very good for him. It did seem the universe had conspired in his favour.
The reality so far though has not been as hoped. There have only been six wickets across three Tests, and less movement through the air, both linked and both certainly down to the banning of saliva to shine the Dukes ball due to Covid-19 safety protocols. There is no crowd singing him into the crease, no “ooooooo” whenever he beats the bat. No sense in those tougher moments beyond his own memories that he has been the one to pull England out of the fire.
Mix all that together and it is understandable why Anderson said he “didn’t enjoy bowling this week”. The time between now and Thursday’s second Test, whether he is selected or not, will be spent rediscovering the love of the grind. “I want to remember why I play the game, enjoy doing what I do and play as long as I can.”
There is another element to all this, and it's how we “allow” our athletes to retire. Once you ascend beyond a certain level, British sport bows to your whim. The “service”, as it goes, merits an exit on your terms.
In 2018, Anderson's close friend Alastair Cook announced his retirement after the Ageas Bowl Test against India, ahead of the final Test. It drew some criticism for turning a prized cap into a token gesture, though Cook’s 33rd century at the Kia Oval washed that away with romantic sentiment.
So, what of Anderson's swansong? The career statistics, he says, don’t bother him, even though he is 10 away from 600 wickets and eight matches away from usurping Cook (161) as England’s most-capped Test cricketer. Both milestones are reachable by the time the summer of 2021 comes around. Does he believe that though?
Well, he says he wants to make the 2021/22 Ashes, by which time he will be 39 and in contention with more high-grade quicks than ever before, including Ollie Robinson, now part of the training group for the second Test, who has the capacity to match Anderson’s metronomic qualities and can extract bounce on Australian wickets. There is every chance the country's most prolific wicket-taker could be left at home, by which point he may wonder if he held on too long.
Unlike his fast bowling peers, such as Dale Steyn, Anderson’s Test retirement will be terminal. There are no franchise riches to seek. This is the format that gave him the best chance at a legacy and still provides the perfect canvas for his artistry. It is the one that gives him meaning, and in his wistful state, it is a meaning he is starting to consider.
Only he will know what retirement on his terms looks like. And it is important to caveat all this by stating Anderson is not hanging on. But that morning he wakes up and decides he’s had enough is a lot closer than English cricket would like to admit.