The tired and skilful Jimmy Anderson

At the top of his mark at Trent Bridge, there was a broken man. Jimmy Anderson had bowled and bowled and bowled, and somehow Australia still hadn’t lost. There seemed to be a limp, but maybe you just expected one. Australia failed to pass 300, but he bowled more than 50 overs in the match. As Haddin and Pattinson inched Australia to victory, he was brought back.

His physical demeanor was more like a man who had just completed 10 straight Tests, not someone in the first of ten. He took the wicket of Haddin, and won the game. It was his tenth wicket of the game. He beat Australia on his own.

Since then, he’s taken 19 wickets at 47. Since then, across both series, England are 3-2 down.

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The ball at the WACA is a on a length outside offstump. George Bailey leans back and slices it past a diving slip to the third man boundary. Australia are 480 ahead.

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Jimmy Anderson is no Dale Steyn. Dale Steyn fans will tell you about this for hours on end. As if Anderson should be ashamed of any good press he gets that isn’t lavished on Steyn. Dale Steyn is a god, a myth, created from a tree struck by lightning and found in a crater in small town America. Anderson is a skilful, smart bowler. There have few men ever in the entire history of our planet as good as Dale Steyn; Anderson is not one of them.

Anderson is, however, a supreme mover of the cricket ball.

Pictures of his wrist position should be X-rated. When he gets the ball to swing, it moves as if operated by a remote control. And he can bowl a ball so good that only the off stump can stop it.

The ball goes where he wants it, and when he is at his absolute best, he can move the batsmen around the crease as well. When Robin Peterson was sent out at No 3 for South Africa in the Champions Trophy semi-final, Jimmy Anderson put on a clinic of swing bowling.

Coming around the wicket to the left-handed Peterson, he bowled four straight outswingers to him. A fair skill in itself. But each was gloriously out of reach. All within a few inches of each other. The length and movement meant Peterson could only leave them. Peterson edged towards each ball, so while he started batting on leg stump, he ended up on off stump. The moment he was in front of the stumps, from around the wicket the wicket Anderson swung the ball the other way, Peterson was out lbw.

That’s not good swing bowling, that’s a supervillain.

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The ball is full and lovely. George Bailey smashes it back over long off, past the rope, boundary and into the sightscreen area. Australia are 486 ahead.

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Anderson had to fight his way in. He’s not built like a fast bowler. He’s built like a greyhound. He’s not massively tall, he doesn’t have the fast bowler’s big behind, and his shoulders are like that of any mortal.

His action is also unconventional. He doesn’t actually watch the ball. His head almost disappears. He’s partly front on, not fully front on or fully side on. His front foot goes off on a random angle like it is ignoring the delivery. He shouldn’t really work.

But he was fast, and had an outswinger. So he made it to the top level. That is enough to take some wickets, but pace isn’t always enough unless you’re scarily quick. And top batsmen can handle consistent outswing, and sometimes the ball doesn’t swing.

It was Troy Cooley who tried to fix Jimmy Anderson. The man who helped turn the ’05 bowling attack into a machine. But Cooley’s ways go in both directions. Mitchell Johnson produced his best deliveries under Cooley, but also lost his way. Kabir Ali never made it under Cooley despite blatantly obvious natural talent. And for Jimmy Anderson, his time with Cooley went very wrong.

With Anderson, any bowling coach could see the flaws. Some will try and fix them, some will suggest he’s doing well even with them. Cooley tried to fix them. They were afraid Anderson would end up with stress fractures in his back. They changed his action – and Anderson ended with stress fractures in his back.

It’s not that surprising that the scientific method didn’t work for him. Even now, Anderson’s run up is not done with a tape measure. It’s the same run up he has had since he was a 15 year old back in Burnley. When marking it, he starts midway between the crease and then leaps his first step, walks his next 13, and then leaps his last one. It’s about as unscientific as anything in Team England, it’s the opposite of eating kale or psychological tests.

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The ball is full at leg stump. George Bailey moves his front leg and flicks it to deep backward square and scrambles back for two. Australia are 488 ahead.

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At home, Anderson can monster teams. Swing bowlers from other countries drool when they think about England; Anderson had the good fortune to be born there. Whatever it is about the climate that makes the ball swing, it’s certainly helped him.

He was pretty good when he had an outswinger, but a few years in he had a killer inswinger as well. Around this time he also mastered the art of hitting the seam when he needed too. That makes you a pretty good bowler on bowler-friendly wickets.

But in recent years he’s been as good in the UAE and India. A series England lost, and one they won from behind. For a swing bowler to succeed in India or the UAE, that’s not about seam up and get it in the right areas, that’s bowling intelligence. The ability to learn new tricks, and things that will work on unresponsive pitches, is how Anderson helped England get to number one.

Anderson has even learnt from other bowlers who aren’t as good as Dale Steyn. From Stuart Clark and Mohammad Asif, he learnt the wobble ball. A ball that misbehaves because even the bowler is not sure what it is going to do. Perfect for flat pitches and boring interludes. The sort of ball that bad bowlers deliver by mistake.

From Zaheer Khan, he has learnt that sometimes on flat pitches you need to bowl faster, not slower. The modern wisdom is to bowl within yourself, with the occasional quicker ball. But Zaheer was the master of sometimes bowling as fast as his body would allow just to make something happen. For both of them, it often does.

Zaheer also bowled reverse swing. Anderson spent time watching him doing that as well. Then he learned the art himself, even adding the hide-the-ball style that Zaheer and many sub-continental masters had used before. It means that the outswing bowler can wobble one off a flat pitch, or reverse one to cause damage. He has come a long way from the young kid who just swing it away for a few overs.

When he was called the most skilful fast bowler on earth, the Steyn fans took great fun in comparing the records of him and Anderson. But Steyn is the best fast bowler on earth, by a distance. Anderson is the most skilful. One is superman, and is enhanced by the earth’s yellow sun. The other is Batman, flawed but really clever with endless resources that he uses to shield himself from the fact he’s not an alien with endless power.

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The ball is a leg-stump length ball. George Bailey drop kicks it to deep backward square for a boundary. Australia are 492 ahead.

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There is a theory that in Anderson can’t bowl in Australia. Reputations are hard to change. And the Ashes of 2006-7 left lasting impressions for many Australians. That was a series where Anderson found five wickets at over 80 apiece. Somehow it seemed worse than those figures suggest. They next time he stepped on a plane headed for Australia he must have paused a bit himself.

In 2010-11, he took 24 wickets at 26. There were no five-wicket hauls, although with Australian wickets falling so fast, it was hard for him to collect them all. He just spearheaded an attack, that was mostly without Broad, into completely and utterly smashing Australia consistently.

The series was 0-0 on that morning of Adelaide. The run out of Simon Katich was annoying, but it shouldn’t have meant the end of all happiness for Australia. Jimmy Anderson did. He dragged Ponting into playing the wrong shot at the wrong ball. He tempted Clarke into playing a stupid shot at a beautiful swinging ball. And he allowed Watson to find gully with a normal Watson drive. He only took one more wicket that innings, and two more in the second innings, but that start to the game was something Australia could not recover from.

In Melbourne, after England’s shock loss in Perth, he took four wickets in Australia’s series-losing 98 on Boxing Day. The wickets of Clarke, Hussey, Smith and Johnson: not a tail-ender between them. Any chance of a comeback, or even a less than embarrassing total, was gone with one Anderson spell.

But that was by far Anderson’s best against Australia, home or away. During 2009 his bowling was mute, only 12 wickets. His last Ashes had the glorious start at Trent Bridge, but England won the series with him contributing only an occasional really good spell. And this one, well, it’s been better than 2006-7, but that’s about it.

The Australians and Anderson don’t like each other. Anderson has enjoyed the good times over the Aussies, and his hand-over-mouth sledging technique gets to them. The ‘broken f*cken arm’ comment shouldn’t be looked at as a one-time thing. There is almost no time when Anderson is out on the ground when he isn’t having words with someone.

The Australians probably enjoy it; they just enjoy it more when they’re winning. As Anderson does.

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The ball is very full and very straight. George Bailey slogs it into the first few rows of the crowd with a slap. Australia are 498 ahead.

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If Anderson were to retire now, which is unlikely given his age of 31, he would retire with a bowling average of 30. It seems very high for a bowler who at times has beheaded Michael Clarke’s off stumps with balls that were as deadly as anything ever bowled.

Like his team, he is a player with a decent record which does not really convey how good he could be at his best. Like his team, he’s a bit flawed, but gets through it through bloody-mindedness and determination. Like his team, he was skilful and smart.

Like his team, he looks tired.

It would be stupid to write off England and Anderson right now. With South Africa having a great team, and India a team of greats, England still rose to the top of the world. They did it with a spearhead with an average average, a splayed front foot and a head that yanks the wrong way. They did it when no one really expected England to be as good as they were, and no one really expected Anderson to do as much as he has.

James Anderson has more Test wickets than every English cricketer other than Ian Botham. From the same amount of Tests, he has more than Willis. That skinny frame and dodgy action has got him there. There is something special about him. Even if he did have the misfortune to be more mortal than Botham or Steyn.

Anderson, and England, can come back. If not now, then one day.

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The ball tails in at very nearly yorker length. George Bailey hits it onto the sightscreen covered seats with ease. Australia are 504 ahead.

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Anderson bowled a quality delivery to Chris Rogers that went off the edge towards Prior and Cook. Prior never moved. Cook jumped violently but couldn’t hold on. Anderson went back to his mark as the catch was trickling slowly behind them. Australia already had a big lead for no wickets, Broad was off the ground, the birds were gathering above England’s heads waiting for them to fall over.

Anderson should have just kept walking past his mark and into the member’s bar.

Instead he kept bowling, 19 overs in all. His first 18 went for 77. His 19th conceded 28.

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After Bailey’s 28th run, Michael Clarke holds his hand up. He doesn’t call the team in with the familiar captaincy gesture where you gesture for them to come in. He just holds his hand up like a police officer stopping traffic. Stop. You’ve done enough.

It was quite clear, for now at least, Anderson and England were done.

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3 thoughts on “The tired and skilful Jimmy Anderson

  1. Beggy Beggers (@beggyg) says:

    Kale. The devil’s pubic hair.

  2. Graeme says:

    That’s a great bit of writing, J-Rod. You should think about doing it professionally.

    Onions can play in Melbourne. Jim needs a holiday, send him home for Christmas in Burnley with the missus and the kids. Have a snowball fight and a million pints of Thwaites. Get down Bury market for a black pudding muffin. Hang out with Greg James and pretend to be a rock star.

    Then he can come back in May, at Lord’s against Sri Lanka and have it hoop all over the place.

  3. Bob says:

    If you’d ran through Bailey’s record over backwards I’d have called you the Tarentino of cricket writers.

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