James Anderson: Ageing like a fine wine
In April 2015, James Anderson went past Ian Botham’s iconic number – 383 – a number that stood like a pillar in English cricket for 23 long years. From Gough to Hoggard to Caddick to Harmison, many showed promise, but to topple that mark you required more than just skills. Hunger, endurance, fitness, and thus longevity became the added dimension to Anderson’s career.
Later, in 2015, after he turned 33, Anderson would launch a collection of wine inspired by his own career. The Numbers Collection – 81 and 11 are quite popular, and they have to do more with his Test cricket's highest score and batting number. Anderson's 81 (against India at Trent Bridge, 2014) is the highest score for a No.11 batsman from England and the third-highest at No.11 in Test cricket. Proud feats indeed, but Anderson can feel prouder about his more illustrious achievements like being the first fast bowler to enter the 600-wicket club.
Random trivia: Anderson claims he didn’t taste his first glass of wine until he was 25.
Just like a fine wine, Anderson keeps getting better with age. And the statement, though a cliché now, doesn’t seem to have a replacement.
How the average has got better with every milestone!
On a gloomy August Tuesday, Anderson dismissed Pakistan skipper Azhar Ali to be the lone pacer-entrant in the 600-club. Only Muttiah Muralitharan (800), Shane Warne (708) and Anil Kumble (619) have more Test wickets – all them being spinners.
Fast bowlers usually run out of steam by the time they hit the mid-30s. The grind to match the standards of international cricket takes a severe toll on the body. In Anderson’s case, over 55 per cent of his wickets have come after he turned 30.
No specialist fast bowler has played as many Tests as Anderson. No fast bowler has played as many Tests as Anderson after turning 30. Courtney Walsh comes close with 81 Tests. If averages are an indicator, at 38, he continues to be the best bowler (note: I have excluded the word – fast) in the world. Anderson averages 21.71 since 2014. If we take a 100-wicket cut-off, his average is better than his much-younger contemporaries – Pat Cummins (22.08), Kagiso Rabada (22.95), Neil Wagner (23.95), Ravichandran Ashwin (24.20). His partner-in-crime and four-year younger Stuart Broad averages 25.64 during the same period.
In 2011, Jimmy had foiled my book-launch plan which was scheduled after India's tour of England. The book on Indian cricket had me as the co-writer. He played a part in routing the Indians 4-0 in England, and the publishers rightly thought it wasn't the aptest moment for the launch. Anyway, three months down the line, I would go on to play host to the man during a sports award function in Mumbai.
. From picking him up at the airport to have him travel around the city and later picking his brain at the poolside and during dinner, it was a day I would forever cherish. What I observed was his childlike curiosity to keep knowing and learning.
By then he had played 63 Tests and had 240 wickets at 30.57. Less than a year back, he was a part of history when England won the Ashes in Australia. He was the wrecker-in-chief with most wickets (24) in the series. Though not world-class yet, his demeanour was way too humbler than his stats. He would openly speak to me about his admiration for Zaheer Khan's skills, and in years to come, he would go on to reveal what he told me – that he learned the art of hiding the ball from watching Zaheer bowl.
Later in the evening, we would be joined by Walsh and a young Virat Kohli. Anderson, Walsh, Jonathan Trott and me would later have our dinner at one of the Asian joints at Trident. It seemed Anderson and Walsh were interacting for the first time. Surreal as I recall.
Never did I imagine that Anderson would go on to breach Walsh’s 519-mark or become Kohli’s much-famed nemesis. In the above 30 criteria, Walsh with 342 wickets from 81 Tests remains the only pacer with more wickets than Anderson. It's a matter of time though.
Back in late 2002, Anderson would create a David Beckham-like hype. He would find a place in a teenage girl's wardrobe. With just a handful of List A games for Lancashire, he was hurried to the English ODI setup. He didn’t even have a name on his jersey but would emerge as the new hope for England in his very first series. After a successful limited-overs tour to Australia and then the World Cup in South Africa, Anderson would go on to be England’s fastest to 50 ODI wickets. Here was England’s new poster boy. A strikingly handsome boy from a relatively conservative English cricket setup, who experimented with his hair and could swing the ball – white and red. If bend it like Beckham was the football mantra, swing it like Anderson was seeping into English cricket. The latter still remains the mantra in cricket. I will come to that. Even the greatest of them, Glenn McGrath believes so.
In his first year of international cricket, he would go on to bag a five-for on Test debut and then an ODI hat-trick against Pakistan. Fatigue and niggles would eventually overpower his early success, and he was no longer the golden boy of English cricket anymore. Attempts were being made to change his action to avoid injury – all of that impacted his rhythm. He was reduced to being a net bowler for a few years, making sporadic appearances as his peers grew bigger in stature.
During India’s tour of England in 2007, Anderson would claim MS Dhoni as his 50th Test wicket. In the Lord’s Test, he became the first English bowler to dismiss Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly in the same innings. He would go on to torment Tendulkar multiple times.
Anderson would go on to focus more on the red ball, and that impacted his white-ball career. In hindsight, that specific focus on the red ball helped him to prolong his career and craft his legacy as a Test cricketer.
Before Anderson, Australia's McGrath held the record for most wickets by a fast bowler in Test cricket. An all-time great, McGrath told BBC, "He’s set the bar a bit like Sachin has. No one is ever going to catch Sachin in Test cricket for the amount of runs he’s scored (15,921) and the matches he’s played (200). Jimmy’s done the same for fast bowling. I didn’t have the skill level Jimmy has. When he’s swinging that ball, both ways, in control, there’s no one better.”
McGrath would finish his Test career with 563 wickets from 124 Tests at 21.64. Him rating Anderson’s skill-set ahead of himself is the ultimate testimony to the English bowler.
Trivia: With 949 wickets, McGrath has the most wickets for any fast bowler in international cricket. In fact, his international bowling average of 21.76 is the best for any bowler with over 405 international wickets.
When Anderson started, it was McGrath ruling the roost for fast bowlers as the likes of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were at the twilight. Anderson's rise coincided with the rise of South Africa's Dale Steyn, inarguably the best fast bowler to debut in this century. Steyn's injuries post 2015 would force him to retire from the longer format early, but Anderson continues to defy the usual norms.
Anderson’s attitude sets him apart
Andrew Flintoff had famously remarked once that while he wanted to get Tendulkar out on the field, a part of him also wanted to impress the batsman and earn his respect. Fellow Lancastrian would earn the ire of Indian fans by disagreeing with Flintoff ahead of England’s 2012 tour of India.
Anderson famously wrote in his Daily Mail column: “I cannot relate directly to what Freddie said, but I know what he is getting at. I do know that people have said they love watching him bat, and maybe too much of that kind of admiration could dull your competitive edge.
“I’ve never been aware of succumbing to that myself but maybe subconsciously, because you respect him for what he has done in the game 100 international centuries is some achievement and the way he has conducted himself, you want to get him to respect you back.
“The Sachin factor is quite something to experience. I’ve played in games here in which the Indian supporters seem more interested in his batting than how their team are doing, when Sachin getting out is the signal for a mass exodus.
“I will be seeking to make myself pretty unpopular with the locals in the weeks ahead. The bottom line is that we treat everyone with the same respect, whether they’ve played one Test or 100 and that goes for trying to earn their respect, too.”
I have used the line before – He is truly your-regular-shy-neighbour-Jimmy off the field. On it, he metamorphoses into a giant called James Anderson.
In a span of six years, Anderson dismissed Tendulkar nine times in Test cricket, the most by any bowler.
Anderson vs some of the top batsmen
Stat courtesy: ESPNCricinfo
Trivia: Anderson enjoys bowling to Sri Lanka’s Lahiru Thirimanne and Pakistan’s Shan Masood the most, dismissing them seven and eight times respectively. Thirimanne averages 4.57 against Anderson, whereas Masood 5. Anderson has struggled against the South African duo Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers. De Villiers averages 70 against Anderson, whereas Amla’s average shoots up to 199!
There were speculations that Anderson would retire after the 600-mark if he achieved so in the Pakistan series. The news doesn't come as a surprise considering he's 38 and England have already lined up a crop of promising pacers. With the experience of Broad alongside the quality of Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer, we thought England were preparing for life after Anderson.
Anderson brought an end to the speculations after the Rose Bowl Test.
“I’ve chatted to Joe [Root] about this a little bit and he has said he would like me to be in Australia. I don't see any reason why I can't be. I’m working hard on my fitness all the time. I’m working hard on my game.
“I didn't bowl as well as I’d have liked for the whole summer. But in this Test I was really on it and I feel like I’ve still got stuff to offer this team. As long as I still feel like that I think I'll keep going. I don’t think I’ve won my last Test matches as an England cricketer yet.
“Can I reach 700? Why not?”
We can only expect more addition to the number collection of his wine range — 600, 700 and maybe a 1,000 (yes).
The Ashes is another year-and-half away. If he plays, Anderson will be past 39, and the series, considering its legacy and intensity, will be one of the biggest challenges of his career. Considering his ageing like wine, there's no reason why he can't get to 700. If he gets there, he would then have 987 international wickets, so the mark of 1,000 would be the next challenge. Only Murali and Warne have breached the four-figure in international cricket. Can Anderson get there? Why not?