Oh James Anderson, why did you not go out alongside Stuart Broad?

England's Stuart Broad and James Anderson put their arms around each other as Broad receives a guard of honour from the Australian players before the start of the fourth day of the fifth Ashes Test at the Oval last summer
Stuart Broad and James Anderson walk onto the Oval pitch as Broad receives a guard of honour from the Australian players on his final Test match last summer - Reuters/Paul Childs

There was a palpable sense, amid Stuart Broad’s dreamlike curtain-call at the Oval last summer, of James Anderson playing the page boy at a party that should have been his. Yes, it was stirring to see the pair stride out to the middle through a guard of honour, as Broad, with his usual Hollywood flourish, took a wicket on his last delivery with the ball and walloped a six on his last with the bat.

“Neither of us,” Anderson said, “could have achieved what we have without the other.”

It was heartfelt, but it begged the question of why they were not bowing out together.

Anderson had enough clues during that Ashes series that his Test career was on borrowed time. It was not simply that he had taken just five wickets in four matches at 85.4. It was the fact that England had not even invited him to take the new ball at Edgbaston, before dropping him for Headingley a fortnight later with the team 2-0 down.

But still, stoic to a fault, he spoke as if such indignities were mere bumps in the road, reflecting: “I’m even more firm that I want to carry on.”

This defiance did not quite chime with the analysis of one former team-mate. Steve Harmison observed that Anderson had lost his zip and that a chance had been squandered to bid farewell at the top, against Australia. It was hardly a verdict you would have ever heard from the England dressing room, who held the party line that the king of swing had not lost a step. Only Harmison, it seemed, could see the evidence to the contrary.

‌So now, sadly, it has come to this, with Brendon McCullum embarking on an 11,000-mile journey from New Zealand to tell Anderson that he would not be required beyond this summer. It was an honourable gesture by the head coach, who recognised such shattering news could only be broken to a player of this stature in person, over a round of golf, rather than by a long-distance telephone call.

Even so, it was difficult to shake the sense that it did not have to be this way. Anderson could be comfortably retired and halfway to a knighthood by now. But instead of feeling the touch of a sword upon his shoulder, he is receiving only the dreaded tap of McCullum’s hand, ushering him dolefully out of the door.

He could not acknowledge that the end was nigh

The greats, it is said, always know when the well has run dry. Anderson, though, has given the air this past year of a man desperate to deny the diminution of his powers. Granted, his under-performance in the Ashes could be blamed on the groin injury he suffered just a month before. But at the climax of this year’s series in India, he was adamant his fitness had returned, declaring: “I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in.”

This bold statement owed much to his adrenalin rush at reaching the monumental milestone of 700 Test wickets. It overlooked the wider context of a 4-1 series defeat and the reality that, while magical in the second Test in Visakhapatnam, he struggled to produce such sorcery again, visibly toiling in his longer spells in the heat.

He could not publicly acknowledge, even for a second, that the end was nigh. And so, in a twist that strayed far from the script he had in mind, it has taken McCullum to do it for him.

Nobody can reproach England for turning towards the future. McCullum is perfectly within his rights to jettison even a titan like Anderson, given that he needs to start planning for the ultimate challenge of trying to wrest back the urn in Australia in 18 months’ time. It is not as if he has broken any diplomatic protocols: he has informed Anderson respectfully, and with plenty of notice.

This is not the same situation as Andy Murray, who, on tennis’s lonely hamster-wheel, can plot the moment of his departure on his own terms. McCullum has a team to think about, and he has reached the uncontroversial conclusion that a bowler set to turn 43 by the next Ashes is no longer a viable option.

It has been a staggering run for Anderson. You only have to look at the England line-ups for his debut at Lord’s, against Zimbabwe in 2003, to marvel at his own endurance. All of them have long moved on: Marcus Trescothick to the job of England batting coach, Rob Key to that of managing director.

But Anderson has kept pounding in, justifying his selection under brutal scrutiny while entire teams have risen and fallen around him.

Inevitably, in his fifth decade, it is now his turn to face the reckoning. You just wish, acutely, that he could have seen it coming.

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