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Feature

Timeless James Anderson targets 'mind-blowing' milestones as 1000 first-class wickets loom

Fast bowler set to equal Alastair Cook's England appearances record with 24th Lord's Test

George Dobell
George Dobell
29-May-2021
James Anderson took a five-wicket haul in Pakistan's first innings, England v Pakistan, 3rd Test, Southampton, 3rd day, August 23, 2020

James Anderson took a five-wicket haul in Pakistan's first innings  •  Pool/AFP via Getty Images

There may be absences; there may be new faces. But some things remain reassuringly constant.
Barring a late injury, James Anderson will play his 24th Lord's Test this week. It comes almost exactly 18 years after his first. His record at the ground - 103 wickets at an average of 23.89 with six five-fors - would please most players as full career statistics.
If he does play this week, and there is every reason to think he will, he will equal Alastair Cook's England record of 161 Test caps. It was an outstanding achievement for Cook. For a fast bowler to equal it is… well, it's ridiculous, really.
It's not the only milestone which beckons for Anderson, either. He is also eight short of a thousand first-class wickets. In the grand sweep of history, that may not seem especially remarkable. He remains more than 3,000 wickets short of Wilfred Rhodes' first-class tally, after all. At this rate, Anderson will need to play until he's 100 to match that. You suspect even he might think that beyond him.
But in the modern game, it is a staggering achievement. It may be that another spinner or two reaches the milestone in the coming years. But there is every chance Anderson will be the last seamer to do so. The modern schedule, dominated as it is by limited-overs cricket, simply won't allow.
Consider Rhodes' record: in a career as a left-arm spinner that stretched over three decades, he played 17 seasons in which he featured in 35 first-class games or more. Anderson has never played more than 16 in a season and only played more than 11 on three occasions. He's never had the chance to bowl on an uncovered wicket, either.
Anderson is no stranger to breaking new ground as a bowler, of course. He's shrugged off record after milestone with the same "it'll be something that I look back on when I finish" stock answer. But even he appears struck by the magnitude of these landmarks.
"1,000 wickets does seem like a lot," he says with a touch of bewilderment. "In this day and age I don't know if it's possible to get that many first-class wickets any more. With the amount of cricket that's played, there doesn't seem to be that longevity in bowlers any more, and there's loads of T20 cricket and whatever else going on around the world. It feels a lot."
He seems equally overwhelmed with equalling the appearances record of Cook.
"It does make me feel proud," he says. "I never imagined in a million years I'd get to this point. Certainly for a bowler to play this amount of games is… I don't know what the word is. But it's a bit mind-blowing to me.
"I feel really honoured that I've managed to do it because it's such an amazing thing to do. I absolutely love Test cricket. I've got a huge passion for it. Growing up, all I wanted to do is play Test cricket for England and I'm honoured I've been able to do it for this long."
He has, he says, been "lucky" with injuries. But, like the miracle of childbirth, it seems the good memories have served to block out the bad. Because a list of Anderson's injuries is long and painful. Remember the stress fracture? And the broken ribs? And the side strains, shoulder issues and knee problem? We're still waiting for the broken ******* arm but, short of that and nits, he's pretty much had it all.
"I've been so lucky with injuries," he says. "I think about Simon Jones, whose career was seriously affected by injury. Or people who have long lay-offs like Jofra at the minute. Touch wood I've not had career-threatening injuries, so to get to 38 and be in that position makes me feel really privileged.
"Of course you get injuries and have to bowl when it hurts a bit but I actually get some pleasure out of that. Putting the hard yards in, that's when it means the most. I get a lot of pleasure out of it. Bowling 10 overs on a green seamer doesn't really do it for me. I want to put a shift in for the team when it's tough."
No one should make the mistake that all this talk about what has been achieved has diverted Anderson's focus from what has not. And for all the talk about 'new faces' and 'rest and rotation' it is clear that neither Anderson or Stuart Broad's appetite for the challenge remains unsated. Indeed, Anderson admits the pair have been in contact talking about the prospect of being reunited with the new ball.
"I don't feel like I've played that many games," Anderson, who appeared with his England teammates in the LV= Insurance launch video 'In With Heart', says. "My body doesn't feel old or tired, it's just incredible.
"Yes. I'd love to play all seven Tests this summer. There are five Tests against India after these two Tests against New Zealand, and then the Ashes after that. So we want to start this summer well. So hopefully, if we do pick our strongest team we [Anderson and Broad] would like to think that we're both in that. And we'd love to share the new ball together, yes.
I'd love to play all seven Tests this summer. Hopefully, if we do pick our strongest team we [Anderson and Broad] would like to think that we're both in that. And we'd love to share the new ball together, yes.
Anderson's ambitions are undimmed at the age of 38
"Stuart and I have sent a few texts to each other saying it'd be nice if we did get to play together. Obviously it's completely down to the coach and captain. But I think, from the team's point of view, we want to get some momentum going into a big summer.
"The rotation in the winter was completely understandable with the amount of cricket we had and the amount of time in bubbles that we were spending. It's going to be slightly different this summer. If everything goes well, I think it will start to get relaxed. We won't be in the sort of bubble life that we've experienced in the last 12 months. So there might be not as much reason to rest people
"I know it's probably not that realistic [to play all seven Tests]. Especially with the depth we have in the bowling group, it makes sense to keep everyone fresh. So it's just a case of managing workloads. If I played the first Test and bowled 20 overs, then obviously I'd want to play in the second Test. But if it's a game where I bowled 50 overs, then you'd obviously review that. So yes, I'd love to play this first two. I know they're back to back, but there is a bit of a break after them.
"The five Tests against India might be a different story with back-to-backs in quite quick succession. That might be where people get rotated a bit more."
There are caveats to all this, of course. It's less than a year ago that Anderson's second-innings record - and, in particular, his ability to maintain his level of performance towards the back-end of games - was beginning to raise questions and, even this season, he has been sidelined by a calf injury. He's 39 in July. At some stage, Time will catch up even with him.
But anyone who saw him bowl in India and Sri Lanka will be assured there is no obvious decline. Quite the opposite, really. And while Anderson is full of praise for the younger bowlers in the side - at various times, he describes Ollie Robinson as "brilliant" and "extremely impressive" - he does point out that bowling at Lord's brings challenges.
"Once you get used to the slope, it can be a huge advantage to you as a bowler, because even when it's flat, you feel like you're in the game with some movement," Anderson says. "But when you're not quite there as a bowler, when your rhythm might be off, it can really affect you. It can push you in tight to the stumps from the Pavilion End and it can sort of make you fall away a little bit more from the Nursery End. I've had times where I've bowled too wide from the Nursery End and too straight from the Pavilion End. Once you get used to it, it's great, but sometimes it can be a bit tricky."
This determination to play might give Chris Silverwood, the coach and selector these days, something of a headache. He has made it clear he wants to provide opportunities to fringe players and he knows Anderson and Broad have been known to react less than phlegmatically to disappointment. But he might take heart in Anderson's long-term response to being dropped from the ODI side, in the wake of the 2015 World Cup.
"I was slightly annoyed at the time," he says with understatement. "But looking back, it's been an absolute God-send because I certainly wouldn't still be playing now if I'd carried on playing one-day cricket. Having the breaks between series to work on my fitness and recover has made such a big difference being.
"And being able to fully focus on one format, too. I remember getting to the end of a Test series and the day after you're practising your white-ball skills.
"It can be quite difficult to switch. It affected my action a bit at times. When you're trying to bowl yorkers, you do things slightly different with your action. You might try to bowl faster, you might lose your seam position and not swing it as much in red-ball cricket. It's definitely helped having my sole focus on Test cricket."
England really do have an exciting crop of seamers pushing for Test recognition. And a certain degree of succession planning no doubt makes sense. But bowlers like Anderson come along very rarely. England have been lucky to have him. There may be a chapter or two of his story left to be written.
James Anderson and other England cricket stars appear in the LV= Insurance "In With Heart" film celebrating England's cricket community ahead of the LV= Insurance 1st Test against New Zealand. Watch the video here

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo