“IS this the end coming?” asked Geoffrey Boycott as he pondered the laboured display of England’s James Anderson?
The words hung uneasily on the Test Match Special airwaves, as though Boycott had uttered a colourful phrase.
A truth that dare not speak its name, however, is rarely reluctant to do so when Boycott is voicing it.
The former Yorkshire and England batsman was simply saying what others, no doubt, were privately thinking: is England’s leading Test wicket-taker – 34 in July – finally nearing the end of the road?
As South Africa scored 329-5 on the opening day of the fourth Test at Centurion, Anderson’s figures of 0-70 from 21 overs summed up the visitors’ mediocre effort.
After the euphoria of their series-clinching win in Johannesburg, it was more a case of “After the Lord Mayor’s Show” as England failed to find the same incisiveness.
Of course, England are still well in the game as they seek to clinch a 3-0 win.
But this was a day when catches went down and the bowling, for the most part, left much to be desired, with Chris Woakes conceding 74 runs from his 16 overs and the pace men guilty of pitching too short.
Of most concern, though, was the performance of Anderson, who set the tone by bowling a leg-stump half-volley with the opening ball of the match that was hit for four by Stephen Cook, who went on to become the 100th player to score a century on Test debut.
The final ball of that opening over was another juicy leg-side delivery which Dean Elgar gleefully clipped to the rope.
Up in the commentary box, Boycott – who prefaced his observations by stating what a great bowler Anderson has been over the years – proceeded to pronounce with typical candour.
He concluded that a man with 429 Test wickets at an average of 29.30 looks as though he could be nearing the end.
“Jimmy’s not there – I’m sorry,” said Boycott.
“If I was a selector, I’d be starting to look at what he’s dished up in three Tests (in South Africa) and thinking, ‘Is this the end coming?’
“I’m concerned. The end comes to everybody. It comes quick – out of nowhere.
“The nip goes. He doesn’t look happy. He doesn’t look like he’s enjoying bowling.”
Boycott said cricket is littered with examples of bowlers losing the Midas touch.
“Suddenly, you get to a certain age and it goes,” he said.
“I saw Chris Old at Yorkshire. I saw Graham Stevenson at Yorkshire. A lot of players tend to lose it, early 30s.”
Boycott said Anderson was “bowling the batsmen in” rather than bowling them out and that his pace at Centurion was “rubbish”.
Prior to the match, AB de Villiers, the South Africa captain, put it somewhat more diplomatically when he said that some of England’s senior bowlers “have lost pace”, a comment that could only have been uttered with Anderson in mind.
Alastair Cook, the England captain, responded to that by saying it takes a “brave man to call Jimmy Anderson out”, and that Anderson would use de Villiers’s words as motivation.
Yet there was no sign of that happening as a man who has managed only three wickets in the series at 77.66 struggled to justify his status as leader of the attack.
Time catches up with everyone, of course, and it is worth reflecting that Anderson is only a year younger than Fred Trueman when the Yorkshireman played his last Test against New Zealand at Lord’s in 1965.
In its report of that match, The Guardian said the once blisteringly quick ‘Fiery Fred’ had become one of the England attack’s “honest plodders … who, in his time, had scared the pants off every batsman from Wolloongabba to Old Trafford. But no longer.”
It was only a few months ago, of course, that Anderson bowled superbly in hostile conditions against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates.
He took 13 wickets in the three Tests at 15.61 and was blameless as England fell to a 2-0 defeat.
Since then, Anderson has suffered a calf injury and had bowled only five overs in a warm-up game before being passed fit for the second Test in Cape Town. He has looked short of his best and clearly does not like the Kookaburra ball, which contrasts with the Dukes ball that he swings so prodigiously in England.
It will not just be Boycott who is concerned about Anderson, with the Yorkshireman saying it will be “interesting” to see Anderson play in England this summer.
The first Test of the 2016 season is against Sri Lanka at Headingley from May 19, and that series should give us a clearer indication of whether there is life in the old dog yet.