looks exhausted. As he sits in a small room in the MCG basement after bowling 59 overs in the drawn fourth Test, the eye is drawn to the dark red smears on his white trousers. No, not cricket ball lacquer; blood. In Adelaide, he took the skin off his right knee diving for a catch. Almost a month later, the wound has still not healed, the heavy duty abrasion of bowling and fielding in Ashes cricket continually scraping it loose.
His limbs are aching. have taken just two wickets on the final day, and Anderson has borne the brunt, running in again and again to bowl to Steve Smith. “I know my speed dropped off into my 58th and 59th overs,” he quips drily. “I was bowling it, looking up at the speed, and then he was hitting it.”
Perhaps, then, Anderson’s sense of humour is the only thing still in complete working order. “It takes so much out of you,” he says. “The pitches over here are absolutely rock-hard. The footholes get so uneven. It takes it out of your ankles and knees. I should sleep well for the next few days…”
Anderson is one of the fittest cricketers in the England team, and even he looks beat. This is the brutal nature of touring . It tires your body and it tires your mind. And yet it is a feeling with which Anderson is bleakly familiar. This is his fourth tour of Australia. It doesn’t get easier with time.
The fifth Test at Sydney awaits next Thursday, and for the 35-year-old Anderson, it will almost certainly be his last appearance on Australian soil. He no longer plays one-day international cricket, and although you would love to see him charging in with the new ball at Brisbane in November 2021, realistically it is hard to envisage. And so it seems an appropriate moment to reflect on his memories of those four Ashes tours.
“Mixed, really,” he says. “2010-11 was obviously the highlight. I bowled as well as I have anywhere in that series. When you play away, you have to find different ways. Kookaburra balls, different pitches. I’ve struggled at times, I’ve had success at times.”
For all his records, for all his years of service, Anderson has never quite managed to shake off the criticism that he can only do it in England, with a swinging Duke ball. Never mind that he averages 30 in Asia and 25 in the West Indies. Never mind that he has taken more wickets away from home than any fast bowler this decade. Never mind that MS Dhoni described him as “the difference between the sides” when England won in India in 2012-13. Mud sticks. And Anderson’s unjust reputation as a greentop bully will probably follow him into retirement.
“There was a guy shouting at me today,” he says. “‘You can’t bowl with a Kookaburra!’ And I said: ‘You might have a point there’. You’ve got to have a thick skin, definitely. Try to brush it off in your own way.”
Anderson has seen enough on his four tours of Australia to know that they play rough, on and off the field. The Melbourne Test was a prime example, with Anderson singled out by the Australians in the build-up for innocuous comments made about the depth of Australia’s pace-bowling attack. The fact that Mitchell Starc’s replacement Jackson Bird ended the match with figures of 0 for 108 suggested Anderson might have a point.
“I was just speaking factually,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to have a dig at anyone. I don’t really care what people think of me, to be honest. If people want to get het up about some pretty dull comment I made about their bowling attack, it’s fine. I don’t really care.”
This is the other side of touring Australia: the media campaigns, the shouts and whispers, the mental disintegration. On the fourth day of the match, Channel Nine kicked up a fuss about footage supposedly showing Anderson with his nail on the ball. Again, never mind that both umpires saw nothing wrong. Never mind that the square had been lavishly watered, and so mud was accumulating on the ball as it rolled over the footholes, and Anderson was simply scratching it off. The “ball-tampering” headlines were hitting the wires within minutes.
“Ridiculous, but what we’ve come to expect,” Anderson says. “It does get boring at times. It probably gets boring for you guys as well.”
How has the Australian public treated him over these four tours? “Again, mixed,” he says. “A lot of people have been kind, and other people not so. I think I’ve got away with that side of things. Broady’s taken the brunt of the stick over here.”
So how should we assess Anderson’s record in Australia? Although his average of 35 is still a touch high for his liking, statistically his performances this series rank on a par with England’s winning tour of seven years ago: 16 wickets at 26, and the lowest economy rate by far. He has taken almost twice as many wickets here as any other visiting fast bowler this century. And of course, he was the leading wicket-taker in 2010-11. But of course, James Anderson can’t do it in Australia.
Even in the massacre at Perth, he managed to pick up four wickets. Nevertheless, it is true that when conditions have not suited him, he has frequently been reduced to a containing role, one he performs better than any of his team-mates. And on a dead final-day surface at Melbourne, he was powerless to lay a glove on the great Smith. “It’s quite demoralising when it gets to that point,” he says. “It’s going to take something special to get him out on pitches like that.”
And so, alas, Anderson’s fourth and probably final tour of Australia will end in defeat. But there is one game left for him to leave his mark, and after the Melbourne draw, Anderson is determined England will finally break their duck at Sydney.
“I’d feel disappointed for this group if we didn’t get a win on this trip, because we’ve worked so hard,” he says. “We have played well at times in all four Tests. It would be nice if we can carry that on and have one last push at Sydney and try to get a win. It would mean a lot to the lads, and all the English support we’ve had over here. Unfortunately for us, it is a bit late.”
The heart still longs. Every defeat cuts deep. Anderson may be 35, but he still runs in hard, still gives it everything, still wants it as much as he ever did. This series has left a scar, for sure. But a few wickets in Sydney and a winning end to the tour might – just might – aid the healing process.