cricket:image:1442843 [900x506]
cricket:image:1442843 [900x506] (Credit: ECB/Getty Images)

Why England have more at stake in Euro 2024 final than Spain

They came to praise James Anderson. And to bury him. In their thousands, marching down the Wellington Road for one final curtain-call at the venue where it all began, 21 years earlier, and in the midst of an entirely different epoch.

How many ways do you want to dice the differences between that Test match and this? Anderson's debut, against Zimbabwe in 2003, came in a time before smartphones, before social media. Before Twenty20 cricket and the fragmentation of the international game. Before exactly 100 subsequent England Test debutants: two of whom had not even been born when he bowled his first ball (or, in Rehan Ahmed's case, his first 1,658 balls), and the last two of whom (the day's other main man, Gus Atkinson, included) were conferred before the start of play today.

It was a time, too, before the onset of mawkish multi-media montages, such as the one voiced by Anderson's first Test captain, Nasser Hussain. Entitled "Dear Jimmy", it was pumped out over the big screens at Lord's, moments before the national anthems, as the man to whom it was addressed chewed his bottom lip at the top of the pavilion steps, visibly yearning for his safe space out in the middle of the pitch.

"You were there at our greatest and there at our lowest, so it's time to thank you," Hussain intoned, as snippets of an indomitable career danced out on a still-gloomy morning, in a bid to transform Lord's into the sort of hub of sentimentality that Centre Court had been for Andy Murray only six days earlier. "Now and for ever, you are England cricket." It's perhaps not surprising, in the circumstances, that his personal contribution to the occasion could not come out on top.

"I don't particularly like fuss," Anderson admitted in his pre-Test press conference, when explicitly asked how "awkward" he was about to find this week - the subtext of the exchange being that the answer could already be taken as read. With his family lined up on the northern-most wing of the pavilion, up popped another opportunity for Anderson's Adam's Apple to wobble as his daughters rang the five-minute bell. Needless to say, neither Lola nor Ruby had been around for his debut either.

And so to the action itself. It was pretty, it was safe. It contained, within a tidy 10.4-3-26-1 analysis, echoes of Anderson's greatness, in particular that economy of effort in his sparse, pared-down action. But not for the first time in recent months, there was a sense too of a lack of danger - a retreat from enterprise even, as he dragged his length back after a nine-run opening over and buzzed unthreateningly around the splices of Kraigg Brathwaite and Mikyle Louis, whose status as the first West Indian Test cricketer from the island of St Kitts marked a beginning of history, even as the end of history lined up against him.

But that over in itself had been a weird old vibe. Whereas Edgbaston or Headingley would have been climbing the walls in anticipation of Anderson revving up his motor for one last push, the Lord's response was almost a surfeit of reverence. Centre Court was channelled once more as pin-drop silence greeted his first ball, then a deflated exhale of commiseration as Louis fenced the third ball of his own Test career down through the gully for four, before blazing his fourth with contemptuous poise through the covers. Brathwaite's advice before their entanglement had been to watch the ball closely, and "stay still". His partner could scarcely have heeded him more acutely.

It was, in fact, the most expensive first over of a Lord's Test since 2006, and dimly reminiscent of Anderson's own misleadingly profligate display three years before that, when Hussain had placed too much faith in the outswinger that had so impressed him at the 2003 World Cup, and forgot to offer him protection on the leg-side for a 17-run opening gambit.

Anderson pulled it back then, as he did now - both figuratively and literally - leaking just two more runs in his next four overs, one of them to a jabbed inside-edge from Louis. But his response smacked of a familiar and involuntary reflex, honed by years of survival on the sort of unforgiving deck that Lord's, self-evidently, has become in recent years.

In their final flourishing as a partnership, Anderson and Stuart Broad had gone out of their way to suppress that urge to avoid being driven. In the first iteration of Bazball, against New Zealand two summers ago, Anderson had grabbed two wickets in the space of his first 15 balls and had six slips in situ before half-an-hour of the match had elapsed.

Now, he and Chris Woakes - another safe selection, even if last summer's Ashes heroics arguably meant he 'owned the shirt', at least in home conditions - found themselves pootling around at 80mph/130kph, waiting for the Dukes' fabled lacquer to disperse and generally conveying a rare sense of stasis for a team that had been in such a hurry to succeed over the past couple of years.

In the wider circumstances, therefore, to suggest that Atkinson had somehow "stolen" Anderson's thunder would be a misnomer. The baton, and the burden, seemed to be handed over with visible gratitude as Atkinson replaced him from the Pavilion End and struck two balls later with an injection of slippery pace that seemed to dislodge Brathwaite precisely because of the lull that had preceded it.

It was notable, however, that Anderson had not been asked to perform a more ceremonial baton-passing in the team huddle prior to play. It might have been a bit on-the-nose for Atkinson to be anointed as Anderson's actual successor through the handing-over of his Test cap. So he did the honours instead for Jamie Smith, the latest and last protégé of the man who had himself kept wicket for Anderson in that debut 21 years before. Alec Stewart not only bowed out of Test cricket that 2003 summer as another England forty-something, he is about to retire from cricket administration too, as the end of his mighty Surrey stint draws nigh.

Leaving aside the effortlessness of England's dominance, however, other aspects of this first day contributed to the sense that Anderson's exit is coming at the right time. There was the return of Ben Stokes as a bowler for starters, into the attack early for his first non-emergency spell in nigh on two years, serving up hooping outswingers that were almost unsubtle in their extravagance - not unlike Anderson Mk.1 in fact, especially when he flipped the shiny side and fired a fierce inducker past Louis' hard-handed flash.

And though the magnificence of his latter years cannot be diminished by a slight tailing-off of the past 12 months, there's an oddity emerging in Anderson's home-and-away record. Though he did finally pick off Jayden Seales to bring an end to West Indies' innings, it was just the second wicket he had claimed in the course of his first three spells of an innings since the start of 2023, at a cost of 316 runs apiece. And that other scalp hadn't exactly been in keeping with the stash of worldies that his reputation has been built upon. It was, in fact, a wide long-hop in last summer's Lord's Test, that Marnus Labuschagne slapped carelessly to point.

Overseas, incidentally, there's been less concern about his returns. Across 11 innings away to New Zealand and India, Anderson had harvested 14 wickets at a perfectly serviceable average of 24.71, even if his strike rate (52.93) arguably indicates the sparseness with which he has been used.

As the man himself admitted on Monday, he's at peace with the reasoning as England's thoughts turn - a touch presumptively but, on today's evidence, with justification too - towards the 2025-26 Ashes. He's probably at peace too with the fact that the beginning of his end is now over. The stage is perfectly set for England's greatest bowler to bowl out without that fuss.