England’s leading Test wicket taker of all time, Jimmy Anderson, saw hopes of a fitting Ashes finale dashed after sustaining a calf injury in the opening match of the current series, writes Tom Howe.
As a result, Anderson, 37, was ruled out of the following four Tests with the question now being – will we ever see the great man perform at the highest level again?
The Lancashire seam bowler was two months shy of his 21st birthday when making his Test debut against Zimbabwe at Lord’s in May 2003. In the years that have followed, Anderson has amassed 575 wickets in 149 Test matches, and seen the famous Old Trafford Pavilion End renamed in his honour.
His first wicket was that of Zimbabwe’s controversial right-handed opening batsman Mark Vermeulen, whose well-documented career was blighted with personal issues and scandal that included being charged with arson following a fire at the Zimbabwean Cricket Academy in Harare.
In 2015, Vermeulen received a ban from all forms of cricket within his own country after posting racist comments on social media, some years after being banned by the England and Wales Cricket Board following a violent altercation with spectators. No stranger to the headlines, a then 37-year-old Vermeulen got tongues wagging once again in 2016, when making a return to the English game as an overseas player for Newquay of the Cornwall Cricket League.
Speaking to him at the time, Vermeulen – who once played in front of 30,000 in a one-day international against Pakistan, as well as listing Lord’s and Sydney and as his all-time favourite grounds – said: “I have come here to perform well and score the required runs for an overseas player. I want to get the team to be more confident in themselves and be more competitive on the field.”
In what turned out to be a difficult season for the Cornish club, one which saw them relegated from the Premier League without a win to their name, Vermeulen scored 596 runs in 16 appearances, averaging 39.73 with a season-high of 146 coming at Penzance. An off-spin bowler, Vermeulen also took nine wickets, including figures of three for five at home to St Austell.
Looking back on a career which featured a highest Test score of 118 against the West Indies in 2003, Vermeulen said: “At junior schools in Zimbabwe you play cricket, athletics, rugby and soccer. Towards the end of my schooling, that’s when I started concentrating on cricket. In my first game I scored 100. After that I thought, OK, I’m going to give this a go.
“I enjoyed watching the likes of Damien Martin and the Waugh brothers. I used to wake up at two in the morning to watch the series in Australia to see the top Aussie players and the English when the Ashes was on.
“Zim is quite a small cricketing country. The standard would never be as high as the county set-up here in England. The jump to Test cricket is a lot bigger. It is difficult in Zim to make the step from domestic to international. Having Andy Flower around at the time, he was somebody to look up to and feed off.
“Andy left Zim six to eight months after I started to make the team regularly. That was a sad time in my career, not having senior players to learn from.”
After fighting back from that adversity, Vermeulen went on to discuss the 118 which came against the Windies later on in his career: “I remember my late uncle had passed away in Bulawayo. I was quite determined to do well for him. It was great to score 100 and dedicate that to him.”
His form led to a call-up for the 2003 World Cup, where he suffered a fractured skull in the nets, the first of two such injuries suffered by Vermeulen.
“I had to have six- hour reconstructive surgery to put my skull back into the right place. The first couple of seasons after that, the footwork wasn’t as good as it used to be.
“The doctor said you have got five to seven millimetres of space between your brain and your skull and there were places where my skull was pressed in by three to four millimetres, just a few away from serious damage.
“My family and friends knew I loved the game so they were never going to say you must stop. If you are going to play, get your head out of the way! That’s easier said than done when you’re facing balls going over 150 miles per hour but I just couldn’t stop.”
Incredibly, after a stretch of ten years, Vermeulen made his Test comeback against South Africa in August 2014 before returning to these shores with Newquay, following spells at Alderley Edge (1998), Betley (1990), Benwell & Walbottle (2000), Fordhouses (2001-02) and Werneth (2006).
Concluding, Vermeulen said: “Now I can see myself getting into coaching for a good number of years and putting something back into the sport. I have got so much enjoyment out of it myself. If I can help youngsters achieve their goals as cricketers then that would be good fulfilment for myself.”
In the passage of time, it will be Anderson, who took the first wicket of an illustrious Test career against Vermeulen all those years ago, and who is now 37 himself, will be faced with deciding upon what he will do once his playing career comes to an end.
The Independent’s Head of Sport, Tom Howe, provides insight into the biggest sporting stories in each edition. To read more from him and the other writers at the Independent, including Gareth Davies, Andrew Clayton, Craig Bratt and Noah Barco, pick up a copy from your local newsagents for just £1.50, or subscribe via https://www.indyonline.co.uk/digital-editions/