On gloomy day, James Anderson finds 600 reasons to smile
James Anderson, England stalwart, becomes the first fast bowler, and fourth overall, to bag 600 wickets in Tests.Updated: Aug 26, 2020, 12:02 IST
The first time James Anderson ran into bowl in England whites, he overstepped. That first over, 17 summers ago against Zimbabwe at Lord’s, went for 17 runs. He came back to bowl a maiden over. He did a notch better in the next over, a wicket maiden. By the end of the innings, Anderson had taken his first five-wicket haul. Three months short of 21 then, Anderson celebrated his 38th birthday a month ago. The talented fresher turned master of swing became the first pacer to claim 600 wickets in Test history on Tuesday. At an overcast Ageas Bowl in Southampton, he surprised Pakistan skipper Azhar Ali with bounce, forcing him to edge to skipper Joe Root at slip.
A delighted Anderson held the ball aloft, but the stands were empty. He can be sure his legion of supporters were cheering from home. It was in September, 2018 that Anderson became the most successful seamer in the game, bowling Mohammed Shami at The Oval to go past Glenn McGrath’s tally of 563 wickets.
On Tuesday, the final day of the third Test in a series, Anderson was frustrated by rain in the morning after poor catching had prevented him from reaching the landmark on Monday.
Only three bowlers have even taken more Test wickets, all spinners: Muralitharan, Warne and Kumble. That he took almost two years for 36 wickets after Shami’s dismissal only shows even the all-time greats are not spared the trials brought by a long career. The ability to fight though separates them from the rest.
It is not easy at 38 to put undue pressure on joints and lower body, which has borne the strain of the pounding as a fast bowler for almost two decades. Anderson, who has done pre-season training at Manchester City in the past, is still at it. In terms of age, only Courtney Walsh has done it for longer.
The wear and tear though did put a brake on the master swing bowler. He missed most of 2019 due to a calf injury suffered in the first Ashes Test, and a broken rib in early 2020 followed. He had quit white-ball cricket long back (the last ODI was in 2015, last T20I in 2009) to preserve for Tests. The murmurs were still getting louder whether the leeway given to him was beginning to hurt England.
Anderson is aware of that. “If I keep bowling the way I did this week, the opportunity to retire will be taken out of my hands,” he said after taking just one wicket in the first Test against Pakistan at Old Trafford. The prospect of not hanging the boots on his own terms could not have felt good.
Anderson had settled the argument on England’s greatest pace bowler long back. A 3-0 home Ashes record, and the 2010 victory in Australia, were the biggest moments as an England player. Throw in the 2012-13 series in India, where a memorable exhibition of swing bowling at the Eden Gardens settled England’s decisive win. For the cut and thrust of hunting as a pair, Anderson’s nearest ally is Stuart Broad, whose seam still complements his swing. Broad, 34, made his Test debut four years after his senior, claiming a remarkable 514 wickets. Ian Botham, with 383 scalps, comes into England’s GOAT pacer debate, but he was about all-round heroics.
There is tough competition for pace slots in England. Anderson and Broad apart, there are at least three who are pushing for selection. Besides, Anderson skips some overseas tours. Shane Warne, the first to go past 600 Test wickets, asked: “If you’re picking your side in England, Anderson is your first pencilled in. Is he your first overseas? I’m not sure,” he told Sky Sports. Only seven of Anderson’s 29 fifers have come abroad, and none in India. In Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, he has only one five-wicket haul each. His success has thus been uneven, though the 2010 Ashes win in Australia, the 2012-13 success in India and a 3-0 win in South Africa (five series from 2005 to 2019) is not something to be scoffed at.
Anderson has taken 216 wickets (avg 32.05 in 67 away Tests), while averaging less than 24 at home. That is not unusual. Bowling partner Broad has picked 334 of his 514 scalps at home. Only Australia off-spinner Nathan Lyon, among active bowlers with over 300 wickets, has taken more abroad—199 out of 390—though sub-continent gives spinners an advantage.
England though will any day take the Anderson legend built on an easy run-up and action, and deliveries that wobble and move late, especially if it is overcast. “You want Jimmy to play as long as he possibly can, so is there a way he could be bowling coach away from home so you can keep him around the group, keep him fit and ready to go?...I’m not sure what the right thing is to do. Jimmy is probably the only one that can answer that,” Warne has said.
Anderson though answers with the Duke’s ball. In English conditions. In the first innings of the third Test, his vicious swing left the Pakistan top order reeling at 30/4. He came back to pick Naseem Shah and take his tally to 598 before snaring Abid Ali. But for rain and poor catching, Anderson would have mounted peak 600 on the fourth day.
A washout on Day 5 would have meant a long wait. With an ageing body, more questions would have been asked. Warne said: “He’s bowling unbelievably well, why wouldn’t you want him to play every Test?”