It seemed too easy at the time. Three weeks ago, Australia’s cricketers lost a Test for the first time in 33 years at the Gabba – deepest, dankest dungeon of the Australian sporting soul, and a kind of mental disintegration portal for meeker, less thrillingly chosen races. So yeah, they got beaten there by India’s B team. But at the end Justin Langer was out in the celebrations looking humble and magnanimous and weirdly invulnerable – all the while wearing that familiar alpha dog, kungfu, zen master smile, the look of a man who, to quote John Updike, has just been hit over the head with a rock and thinks it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to him.
Could they actually get away with this? Slowly, and then in a rush, those unscabbed wounds have begun to open in the past week. The sandwich took the early headlines. Langer himself came out in the newspapers lamenting the fact that one of Australia’s players went out to field with a sandwich in his pocket, essentially a hate crime against the baggy green.
Marnus Labuschagne was eventually fingered as the guilty player. A bit later we learned it was in fact a toasted cheese sandwich, raising all kinds of related issues about the maintenance and laundering of off-white nylon twill trousers. By now, though, the grease had begun to ooze.
Stories appeared in newspapers of unhappy bowlers “bombarded with statistics” during lunch breaks, of players worn down by Langer’s intensity, his BrainyQuote.com proclamations, his personal brand placement as hippy-uncle-cum-alpha-sports-legend. It turns out this stuff can get quite gruelling when you’re trapped inside a bubble losing to India.
In an unrelated blow Australia’s tour of South Africa was cancelled this week for obvious reasons. The cumulative effect is Australia have a head coach in peril, senior players digging in and no scheduled Tests before the Ashes in November, barring a possible world championship final in June.
There is no real time for that team to change. All being well, some of those old ghosts will still be present in nine months’ time, Nathan Lyon still looking to end careers, David Warner seeing fear in English eyes. And eight years on from 2013-14 – broken fucken arms and all that – there is still time for one last click of the wheel in the greatest Ashes horror story of modern times.
At which point this all starts to become a point of interest for Jimmy Anderson in particular, who really must, now more than ever, go on that tour. Anderson will surely be going in any case. It seems weird this has even been a point of debate, with the current India tour painted as a kind of testing ground to see if Stuart Broad and Anderson can “do it” for England overseas (answer: yes, they can).
Broad is just behind Pat Cummins for most Test wickets in the past three years. Anderson has actually got better overseas, taking his wickets at 24 in the past four years and maintaining a strangulating control. Both are being paid half a million pounds a year to play red-ball cricket for England. What are we going to do? Drop them for Craig Overton? Because of the mincing jaws, the swivelling knives of the terrible Gabbatoir? These are the sensible reasons why Anderson, in particular, must be there – and they are very sensible indeed.
The thing is, it’s not really about that. The nonsensibles are the real point of fascination here. It is the story arc itself that demands Anderson returns to Australia. There is a chance to revisit the dark place one more time. And these things are never really over.
The marketeers might have you believe winning the 50-over World Cup is the single most significant English cricket event of the last decade. In reality it was that damned Ashes series of 2013-14: a tour that left genuine scars, where players and coaches unravelled and fell away. Anderson was there all the way, from the opening act at the Gabba with George Bailey whispering “Oh, Jimmy Jimmy” at short leg and the terrifying late-pomp Mitchell Johnson preparing to bounce him with the second new ball. He was there at the end too on a wild day in Sydney, last man in the middle as England collapsed, prelude to the entire tour party falling apart, the Andy Flower era brutally tied off.
Anderson has been back to Australia since. He did pretty well on that last Ashes tour when the team looked weird and England seemed punctured by the absence of Ben Stokes. But there is still a chapter to play out. That visceral humiliation has never really been corrected or given a final gloss.
Rotation will be the key for England, who have a decent hand of pace bowlers. Jofra Archer and Mark Wood can provide the rockets when required. Anderson can win you a session when the ball moves.
But this is the other thing. It doesn’t actually matter if Anderson goes and succeeds or if he goes and melts in the sun. He just has to go. There’s nothing left to save himself for. He is so close to a closing of the circle – or to the opposite: pain, defeat, a bridge too far.
This is how sport is supposed to end, not in staged farewells or managed workloads. We don’t need another #thankyouchef. As Langer has no doubt scrawled on some dressing room wall, sport is about glory. But it is supposed to offer us the other side too, a glimpse of endings, the fight against the fading of the light.
Anderson has been so good and so mindbogglingly resilient. As schedules are pared back there is a kind of clarity emerging, the best kind of ending taking shape, a chance to go out or go down in flames.