James Anderson nears his End-game with a rare point left to prove

“Is he not on there?!” asked a confused Ben Stokes, turning to look at the placard fixed behind him on the wall of the Emirates Old Trafford press conference room. “Got to say I’m amazed at that, yeah.”

He might have an End named after him here, but “James Anderson” does not appear on the international honours board. Which is odd, considering this is his home ground, Manchester’s characteristic cloud cover, and the fact his record here is pretty good. And yet those 37 dismissals at 22.02 in 10 previous appearances have not featured one five-wicket haul. “It would be nice to get his name up on the board,” Stokes added.

That might be a side-quest at any other time in Anderson’s career. But upon his return to the side after missing the victorious third Test, with England 2-1 down in the Ashes, it feels more like a wrong he could do with righting sooner rather than later.

It’s no great stretch to say this will be Anderson’s last appearance at his home ground, and no longer too big a reach to suggest this may be his penultimate Test cap outright. Predicting his end has always been a fool’s errand. But off the back of an indifferent start of three wickets at 75.33 across the first two matches of this series, the idea that a player who turns 41 on day four of next week’s Oval Test might be on the way out has a bit more behind it.

While Stokes has spent the week between Leeds and Manchester fixing his cultural blindspots with a first watch of “The Godfather”, the don of seam and swing has been going through his usual pre-match tapering with a bit more gusto.

He used his column in The Telegraph to state he does not claim a right to a spot in the XI, adding that “nostalgia” would have no bearing on his selection.

With Ollie Robinson always likely to sit this one out after a back spasm in the first innings at Headingley, not picking Anderson off the back of two low performances – particularly when he’s had three chances missed off his bowling – would have been to ignore his sizeable body of work from the previous 179. He finds himself in a unique spot – 12 away from 700 Test dismissals and yet, for the first time in well over a decade, engaged in an unexpected battle to re-state his worth.

“When you’re a world-class performer for such a long period of time, you can understand the frustration for him that he has not felt like he contributed,” Stokes said. “Even when Jimmy doesn’t feel like he’s contributing, you look at what he’s doing in terms of the run-rate, even without that being his goal.

“He’s such a high-quality performer, he doesn’t really bowl bad balls and the pressure he can put on the opposition can create chances at the other end. He’s not taken nearly 700 wickets without going through two games of not feeling at his best. World-class performers bounce back and deliver. I’ve got no doubt that at some point this week Jimmy Anderson will be very crucial for us.”

It was not that long ago – well, the start of the summer – when even Stuart Broad assumed he would be the half of the talismanic new-ball duo to play the bit-part role. And yet Broad’s 16 wickets – the most on either side – at 24.93 has covered for his partner’s indifferent displays. Nothing typified the shift in status that more than the Edgbaston Test, in which Anderson did not take the new ball at home for the first time in 14 years in the first innings, then went unused for the final 36.3 overs of the second as Australia triumphed by two wickets.

This, for all intents and purposes, feels like the start of Anderson’s series in earnest. The side feels in a better place, the pitches far better suited to his craft. He remains in good spirits, vibing with this squad as much as ever. While a handful of England players and staff based in the north headed home after the day-four finish in Headingley, Anderson stuck around to celebrate a memorable win. During the match itself, he assisted bowling coach David Saker, plucking golden nuggets out of his well of knowledge for the benefit of others. Now, he’ll need to dig deep for himself.

Of course, winning the urn itself – for now, maintaining its live status for the Oval finale – is motivation enough, but he does have a couple of other offshoots to improve. He was injured on the first morning of 2019’s opening Test, meaning his last successful Ashes Test was at Edgbaston in 2015. And weirdly, his average against Australia is better away (34.01) than it is at home (36.06).

As we approach what we fear is the end, even if he doesn’t, the side-quests and quirks to address are all rolled into the main objective. With the Ashes on the line, England have the unique luxury of calling upon a living great with a point to prove on his home ground.

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