There is a constant tension in elite level sport between the past and the future. Young players are talked of as future greats of the game, yet to reach their peak. Most do not know that their peak has been and gone until they are past it, at which point there is a rush to usher them off into retirement. The greatest sportspeople, who are synonymous with their club, may have a stand named after them, usually having to wait until the end of their lives for that honour. A faded memory of a past great.
Holding back the tide
But when James Anderson takes to the field in the fourth Ashes test, he will most likely bowl from the end of Old Trafford cricket ground which bears his name. In many ways, James Anderson has come to represent the struggle between past and future in sport. Like King Canute, holding back the tide, the most recent years of his career have been spent fending off questions about his age, whilst also producing a level of performance which defied belief. No other bowler has been able to defy time in this way, fast bowlers are meant to have broken by now. Yet Anderson has endured, holding back the tide to remain a mainstay of England’s attack into his 41st year.
Yet, this summer there have been signs that the dam may be starting to burst. Anderson’s two outings in the men’s Ashes this summer have underwhelmed. Anderson only managed 3 wickets at an average of 75.33, a poor return compared with his career average of 26.21. This was exacerbated when Anderson dropped two catchable chances in the 2nd test. His performances so far this summer have given impression of a player short on match fitness. Anderson has lacked the intensity that had previously propelled him to the top of his profession. England lost both matches that he featured in.
This is undoubtedly Anderson’s last Ashes test match at Old Trafford. The next men’s Ashes test to be played at the ground will be in 8 years. England have recalled him to the side, stating that he was rested, not dropped, for the victorious 3rd test at Headingley. The return of Mark Wood has shown the devastating impact that raw pace can have, which is something Anderson lacks. England have chosen not to select Josh Tongue, for the game, trusting that Anderson can rediscover his old form. They must have full confidence in him, as this is a must win test to keep the Ashes alive.
Anderson’s recall does raise the question of the role of sentimentality in sport. Sport, as an industry, likes to present itself as the ruthless pursuit of results. There is no place for emotion. But what is sport without this? The series was heading to a seemingly routine Australian victory. Then Alex Carey lit the emotional powder keg, galvanising an England team who had struggled to get into the contest to that point. If there is one captain who understands the power of emotion in sport, it is Ben Stokes, and by selecting Anderson, he is hoping to harness that power once more.
One last fairytale?
In sport, there are as many examples of people failing to obtain their fairytale ending as there are of people who have achieved them. For every Lionel Messi being carried aloft by his international teammates having finally won the World Cup, there is a faded star drifting quietly into retirement. At least Zinedine Zidane went down in a blaze of glory. So many are robbed of their moment in the limelight due to the ravages of time and the vagaries of form and fitness.
In the fourth Ashes test, Anderson has the opportunity to find another match winning performance. There would be no better place to do it than in front of his home fans. If there is any one sportsperson who is capable of doing it, then it is James Anderson. Having raged against the dying of the light for so long, England expects once more, perhaps for the final time. If he is able to produce a performance that stands up to his best in an England shirt, then it will justify Stokes’ decision to go with his heart, rather than his head. In doing, Anderson can give England a real chance of pulling off the greatest ever Ashes comeback.