Longevity is an important element in bestowing that title on a sportsman
The first man to play 100 Test matches, Colin Cowdrey, was 41 when he was recalled to a struggling England team to take on Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, that most dangerous pair of fast bowlers.
Cowdrey’s reputation was long established, he had nothing left to prove, and chances were he would only succeed in chipping away at the wall of greatness he was encased in. Why did he agree to tour?
According to the writer Simon Barnes, “Cowdrey had clearly been asked the question many times, but his reply came as fresh-minted, his eyes lighting up: ‘The challenge! I couldn’t resist it! But that’s the thing about sport — you have to be perpetually two years old.’
“That’s how great athletes think,” says Barnes, “They know there will always be a last dragon, but they never recognise him when they meet. They just say good morning and carry on.”
Saying good morning and carrying on in Chennai as India take on England will be the most experienced and successful fast bowler in the game: Jimmy Anderson. He is 38, and this is his 18th year as a Test match bowler.
In Sri Lanka a few days ago he claimed six for 40 in an innings where the rest of England’s bowlers took four wickets for 341. What he has dropped in pace he has gained in subtlety and cunning. “You give him a coconut,” said Michael Holding who knows a thing or two about bowling, “he’ll swing it.”
Anderson comes to India as the only fast bowler with over 600 Test wickets, and the only one to have played as many as 157 Tests. One of the highlights of the home series is likely to be the sight (sadly, only on television as of now) of a great fast bowler unveiling his craft for yet another generation of hopefuls.
Sachin Tendulkar spoke recently of a “reverse reverse swing” that Anderson has added to his armoury. If that confuses the reader, imagine what it will do to the batsman!
England’s policy of rotation means that we might not see him in all the Tests; he might alternate with Stuart Broad. In the 120 Tests they have played together, this pair has claimed over 900 wickets.
Anderson’s greatness is not in doubt, nor is his focus; he remains fiercely competitive. After taking his 600th wicket, he was already looking forward to the 700th. That’s how great athletes think. The next wicket, the next hurdle, the next race, that’s the important one. Everything appears impossible till it is actually done.
Still, to look forward when you could be forgiven for relaxing and repeating stories of the past to willing listeners takes something special. You have to be perpetually two years old.
How does Anderson do it? How does he keep his motivation strong through injuries, loss of form, selectorial mishaps, fatigue, realisation that there is more to life and the temptations of the comfort of a family life?
What motivates a sportsman is a question often asked, especially towards the end of an illustrious career when greatness is behind the performer and (usually) what lies ahead cannot match what went before. Love for what you do is a motivator, as is public adulation. But you can tire of love while adulation can get on your nerves.
At a dinner on the eve of Sachin Tendulkar’s 200th Test match, I asked the legend what had made him carry on playing when he had nothing to prove. His answer, although along expected lines, was still a peep into the mind of a competitor. “Playing for India is the greatest motivation,” he said.
Most players are happy to say on the occasion of their 100th Test that it is “an honour.” The latest to join the list, Australian off spinner Nathan Lyon said, “It is very humbling.”
Some self-aware athletes speak of that “one talent which is death to hide” (to borrow from the poet Milton), the one thing they know to the exclusion of everything else. After all, not all (potentially) great players have the figures to show for it.
Longevity is an important element in bestowing that title on a sportsman. Any player can be ‘great’ for one series, one Test, one day, or even one incident, but it takes someone special to perform at the highest level for close to two decades.
Great performers know that enduring motivation comes from what cannot be measured. They do, therefore they are. It is what separates them from others.
One of the pictures I have at my table is that of the artist Matisse late in life sitting up on his bed, working on a sculpture. He doesn’t need to do it, but he has to. I look at it and I understand Jimmy Anderson a little better.
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