James Anderson will earn his 162nd Test cap if he is selected against New Zealand on Thursday

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It is still some honour – even if honour and shame have come to mean little in other walks of life – to be England’s most capped Test cricketer.

James Anderson will take the title from Alastair Cook if he is selected for the second Test against New Zealand at Edgbaston, and for his 162nd in all. A title which is free from sleaze, which cannot be tainted.

Only the best cricketers of their time have held this honour of most Test caps for England – and for the last 100 years they have either been batsmen or wicketkeepers: not a pace bowler among them, until Anderson broke the glass ceiling.

No statistic could better illustrate Anderson’s supreme craftsmanship. He has bowled almost 6,000 overs for his country, and not a bad one for at least a decade. He is human, and has tensed up a couple of times when his captain has sent in the opposition on green pitches, but overall he has risen above all the blood, sweat and painkillers to stand triumphant among the practitioners of his craft.

It is at Edgbaston, too, that Anderson will break the record if selected. This was the ground where he broke down with a leg injury in the opening Test against Australia in 2019, limping off after four overs, disgruntled even by his standards, knowing that England’s chance of regaining the Ashes was basically departing with him. This new honour, and an England victory this week, would let him erase that memory.

James Anderson is on the verge of several significant milestones

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Being England’s most capped Test player has led to two knighthoods and a peerage for the most recent nine title-holders. So it might be Sir James soon, without his even having to make a donation.

Sir Jack Hobbs raised the bar to 55 Test caps and eventually 61 by the time he retired in 1934. Frank Woolley went on to 64, then Wally Hammond to 85. Of the last nine title-holders, Woolley and Hammond were the only ones who bowled: Woolley slow left-arm, and then in his youth, while Hammond was such an athlete he could bowl as quickly as anyone in the country when he was young, and wanted. Instead, he offered part-time medium-pace and off-spin during his England career.

Godfrey Evans, the one specialist wicketkeeper among the nine, was the engine-room of the England team that effectively became world champions in the 1950s, and raised the bar to 91. Colin Cowdrey, also of Kent, became the first centurion, and went on to become Lord Cowdrey of Tonbridge. David Gower, no less lordly at the crease, went on to 117 Tests, which Graham Gooch, perhaps predictably, pipped by one.

England introduced central contracts at the end of 1999, so the bar was bound to rise soon and significantly. Gooch and all his predecessors had two masters, their county and country. The first such beneficiary was Alec Stewart, who kept wicket in 82 of his 133 Tests, followed by Cook, whose career was devoted to England until he retired from Tests in 2018 with 161 to his name.

Graham Gooch ended his England career on 118 Test matches

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Anderson is on the verge of two more records. Four more wickets and he will overtake the Indian spinner Anil Kumble to reach number three among the all-time Test wicket-takers. Six more and he will reach 1,000 first-class wickets, conceivably the last to do so, given the proliferation of limited-overs matches which are not reckoned in first-class figures.

Almost two-thirds of Anderson’s first-class wickets – 660 out of 994 – have been taken for England, mostly Tests but also in warm-up games on tour; and 332 for Lancashire, mainly in his first four seasons. But do not forget the two he took for Auckland, when he was sent away on England’s tour of New Zealand in 2008 to play a domestic match, and on his return was installed as England’s new-ball bowler. He and Stuart Broad replaced Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison, a moment Anderson still recalls “with great fondness”.

Only then, once he had become established, did Anderson overcome his shyness as a boy from Burnley. Before that Wellington Test in New Zealand, he had taken 62 Test wickets at 39 runs each, a record no better than dozens of others who have bowled pace for England. Ever since he has performed with metronomic consistency, clocking up 40-odd wickets a year, without any sign of flagging, even though he will enter his 40th year next month. 

What matters most though, as always, is the next game and, in that game, strike rate. If England again play four bowlers, they need an average of five wickets from each to win this Test and series against New Zealand. Habitually Anderson hovers around four; his opening partner at Lord’s, Broad, is down to one wicket per Test this year. 

Icons, especially those given the new ball, still have to strike – but, on this day at least, Anderson deserves to be celebrated regardless.