James Anderson after claiming his 600th Test wicket. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Nefarious weather in Southampton threatened to play party pooper on the final day of an English Test summer like no other.
Amid a global pandemic and in one of the worst-hit countries for the coronavirus, it’s remarkable Test cricket – the sport’s longest format played over five days – had been played seamlessly albeit behind closed doors and in bio-secure conditions.
Even though the third Test was destined for a tame draw, everyone – maybe apart from Pakistan’s batsmen – hoped the inclement conditions would clear with England’s ageless spearhead James Anderson on the cusp of history.
Fortunately, the weather gods were kind and while the result was inevitable there was enough time for Anderson to pick up his 600th Test wicket when he claimed the scalp of captain Azhar Ali caught at slip.
James Anderson is in the record books. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images for ECB)
It’s an astonishing achievement, something that might stand the test – pardon the pun – of time. No pace bowler in cricket history has taken more wickets - he’s now 37 ahead of Australian legend Glenn McGrath. Anderson is the only specialist quick to play more than 150 Tests and has bowled 3000 more deliveries than any other seamer.
The only bowlers who have taken more Test wickers are Muttiah Muralitharan (800), Shane Warne (708) and Anil Kumble (619) – all of whom were spinners. Anderson’s longevity is simply remarkable considering the relentless punishment endured by pacemen. The sheer toll of fast bowling marked by an unnatural motion for the body puts considerable pressure on the back, hips, shoulders, ankles and feet.
The unrelenting strain is likened to contact sports – Australian rules football and rugby – and the pressure loaded on the body can equal the same stress as a minor car accident.
It illustrates the improbability of Anderson’s record feat. The 38-year-old has defied the odds through indefatigable work rate, honing his craft, meticulous preparation and overwhelming passion for the game. And he became far more than a home specialist – an unfair tag he is often tarnished with.
He has gotten better with age – his last 100 wickets have been his quickest – and is seemingly drinking the same age-defying potion as LeBron James, who in Year 17 might sill be the NBA’s best player.
Five months before James’ first NBA game, the then 20-year-old Anderson made his Test debut against Zimbabwe in mid-2003 but his rise into immortality was not preordained like basketball’s ‘Chosen One’.
Anderson struggled to have a regular impact in his early years and was on the fringes of a powerful England pace attack, which memorably derailed the great Australian team during the unforgettable 2005 Ashes.
There were stretches, like during the ill-fated 2006-07 Ashes tour in Australia, when Anderson felt innocuous but he shortly after found his groove in the home conditions of the U.K, where he perfected canny movement to exploit the seaming pitches.
He was often unplayable and became the fulcrum of the attack during a golden period of England Test cricket under the captaincy of Andrew Strauss, where they reached the No.1 ranking and conjured era-defining series victories in India and Australia.
James Anderson starred during England's famous Ashes victory in 2010-11. (Photo by Mark ... [+] Dadswell/Getty Images)
After a humiliating whitewash defeat on the 2013-14 Ashes tour, an ageing England team had clearly run out of puff. It was time to regenerate. At this typical juncture, Anderson, then aged in his early 30s, should have been running on fumes and on the way out but it just didn’t happen. Incredibly, he became better – an even savvier quick who had mastered all the tricks of seam bowling.
He didn’t enter a post prime – Anderson defied the wear and tear to somehow become an even more formidable bowler and extend his peak. He did eventually succumb to injury after missing most of last year’s Ashes series but has bounced back with a strong showing inside England’s bubble.
There is clearly something left in the tank. Anderson might even have one last Ashes swansong as he sets his sights on touring Australia in just over a year – a site of mostly bad memories bar spearheading the famous victory almost a decade ago.
"Can I reach 700? Why not?" Anderson told reporters after the third Test. “I don't see any reason why I can't be (in Australia). I'm working hard on my fitness all the time. I'm working hard on my game.”
If he does reach that staggering milestone, there is a good chance it will never be topped. Only his long-time partner in crime Stuart Broad (514) – who has similarly defied father time like his mentor - could have a shot with India quick Ishant Sharma well behind in third of the current pacers with 297 wickets.
Stuart Broad (L) and James Anderson (R) have been England's main pace duo for over a decade. (Photo ... [+] by Stu Forster/Getty Images for ECB)
It’s hard to see anyone toppling the mark. With so much financial uncertainty due to the global pandemic, it appears Test matches – which already struggle for popularity in pockets of the world – will be reduced in volume in the coming years.
And the never ending buffet of cricket for players amid a three-format feast means more burden for quicks shouldering an already arduous work load. Anderson, smartly, has concentrated solely on Test cricket in the backend of his career and never played too much T20 cricket.
Very few cricketers will forgo the lucrative riches of the T20 leagues around the world but their bodies could pay the price.
It means James Anderson is likely to be etched in the record books forever.