I am the son of a No. 11. My dad had no real skill as a batsman. He had patience and a decent technique, if the ball was full on off stump. He pretty much put his foot on the same spot every single delivery, almost oblivious to where the actual ball was delivered.
My dad had no cricket gear other than his red-stained whites, his boots, a ratty terry toweling hat and his box. “Batsmen have gear, bowlers have boots” he told me once. While in beard and belly he could resemble Mike Gatting, one look at him told everyone at the ground that nine wickets been taken, and the tenth would soon follow. You could often pour a beer as he walked out and it would still be ice cold when he returned. He was that guy. Last man. Jack. The bunny and ferret.
But he wore it proudly. He worked in the nets. He fought in the middle; every time with the thought that you don’t have the talent to go in and really bat, but your wicket will end your team’s innings, match or series. I don’t know how he did it every week.
Mike Atherton was left with a hard decision. Sky needed the interview from the amazing finish to the match at Headingley Test. James Anderson had been made Man of the Series, and as such, was required to speak to Sky. Atherton could clearly see the pain on Anderson, and the more he questioned, the more Anderson got upset. Soon it was tears. Atherton had to finish the interview.
Anderson had faced 55 balls in 81 minutes and only needed to face one more afterwards to save the series for his country. He was the hero right up until that ball. The man who failed to handle one short ball. The man who gave the catch. The man who lost the match. He was the last man in, and out.
All three Tests in England this year have had No. 11s do magical things. Nuwan Pradeep survived five balls from Stuart Broad, somehow, to draw the Lord’s Test. Anderson very nearly survived his. And Mohammed Shami’s unbeaten 51 at Trent Bridge made his 3.33 average look silly. Even in the West Indies just a few weeks back, Shane Shillingford made 53 off 29 balls in the West Indies.
But it’s not the summer of the No. 11, it’s the era of them. Ashton Agar’s 98 will be the single thing that defines him right up until he cures cancer. Tino Best was asked to mind the windows by England once, and then smashed them at Edgbaston. Zaheer Khan helped Our Sachin score his highest ever score in Test cricket. That, along with Anderson on day four, are the four highest scores ever made by No. 11.
Even Trent Boult has a fifty. They are giving them away with happy meals. Glenn McGrath’s slog sweep for six was an amazing moment in Test cricket history at the time. Now it’s just another No. 11 who eventually had that one magic day. Like when Monty Panesar saved that Test. And the other one. Graham Onions saved two Tests in the same series from No. 11 – against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. Nathan Lyon couldn’t be dismissed in the Ashes and before that top scored in an innings with a magnificent 14.
There are few players who can score a magnificent 14. No. 11s can.
Muttiah Muralitharan was perhaps one of the last great old school No. 11s. A man who regarded batting as a problem for other people. He bowled 44,039 deliveries in Test cricket, why would he want to be involved anymore? He wanted to slog, laugh, and go out and bowl.
It’s not the modern thinking. We are now in the era of hard working No. 11s who spend a great deal of time on their batting. Nathan Lyon went from a ferret to a bunny with some hard work. Lasith Malinga got better over the years. Morne Morkel really does try to bat well. Boult is a huge upgrade from Chris Martin. Part of this is due to the professionalism of the game. Unless you are Murali, you can’t really afford to throw the bat around for fun.
Then there is the equipment. Once the gentleman’s agreement between bowlers not hurling bouncers fell down, bowlers were fair game for short balls. That led to No. 11 batsmen backing away and swinging, not for fun, but for survival. Even in the 1990s, that was still a common thing for a No. 11 to do. But it changed. Coaches and captains wanted more of their tail. Glenn McGrath was challenged to go from probably one of the worst tailenders in history to someone who could provide. He did. He stood in line. He took balls on the body. At times he looked like recently caught fish flapping on a wharf. But he did get better. And so did everyone else.
No. 11s are never going to be good at facing fast bowlers, or even top quality spin. But they now get in line more often, watch the ball and don’t do anything silly. There is still not enough equipment to protect them, but the days of playing balls from square leg and smiling on your way off have seemingly left us.
Arshad Khan played nine tests. In one of them he made nine runs; from 184 minutes. Bhagwath Chandrasekhar had to overcome a withered arm to score his top score of 22. It was Lindsay Kline who turned the ball into the leg side to set up the run out for the first tied Test and Lindsay Kline who made 15 not out to draw another match for Australia. Jeff Thomson put on 70 with Allan Border over two days to fall all of four runs short of victory. Chuck Fleetwood-Smith’s uncharacteristic 5 not out helped Stan McCabe to his only double hundred. Geoff Allot’s 101 minute duck helped New Zealand draw a Test. The then-world record holder for ducks Danny Morrison batted for 166 minutes to draw a Test for New Zealand against England. He never played another Test.
Mike Whitney had to face an entire over of Sir Richard Hadlee to save a Test. It was a like a seven-year-old school kid holding a stick surviving an Invasion from the US Army. There are few sports, or endeavors in general, as silly as No. 11s batting – sending out the player in your side who is least qualified to do his job against, in Whitney’s case, one of the single greatest human beings to ever bowl a cricket ball. It’s made for humiliation and light relief.
These are not men made for batting. Ishant Sharma once went out on the field with two of the same gloves, in what was a cunning tactical move, or just a stupid thing that No. 11s do. Bob Willis once forgot to take out his bat.
James Anderson is a big player in the age of the No. 11 © Getty Images
Since George Hirst said, probably apocryphally, “we’ll get them in singles, Wilfred” to the No. 11 Rhodes, there have been 11 other occasions of No. 11s winning a Test with the bat. Every single one of these men are heroes worthy of every single honour and prize their countries can afford them; they should be given all the beer and skittles in all the lands. Courtney Walsh has done it twice.
When Walsh retired, he did so with the most ducks of any human being in Test history. But those innings of 0 not out and 4 not out are very special. It’s only at No. 11 where you can offer so much by doing so little.
To thank Jimmy Anderson for his amazing effort at Headingley in trying to save the match, he was given a pitch at Trent Bridge so brutally unfriendly that had it leapt up and punched him, the only surprise would have been that it leapt up. Alastair Cook used Anderson on it for 38 overs. When he finally came out to bat, his team were 159 runs behind. Had he got out then, he would have had one day off after bowling 38 overs.
Instead Jimmy stayed in. He didn’t like the short ball, but he knew this wasn’t Mitchel Johnson and the WACA. He was protected by Joe Root, but not always that maternally. He gave chances, but wasn’t any more lucky than most batsmen on this surface. He just batted. Maybe he batted just for his team. Maybe he batted just so he didn’t have to bowl again. But he scored the third-highest innings a man in his position has scored in over 2000 Test matches. His highest score was made. His first fifty was scored. The world record partnership was broken. And he became only the third man ever to know how the 80s feels like in a Test match at No 11.
Then he drove at a wide ball. The catch was taken. Anderson turned and started to leave the ground with his shoulders slumped. Then he remembered his real job and he jogged off. He had more work to do. His 81 was hurriedly given a standing ovation. His partner in the world record 198 stand was well behind him, Anderson left too quickly for them to be appreciated together. Anderson raised has bat to shoulder height only once just as he hit the Trent Bridge pavilion steps.
Anderson’s last two innings have been two of the greatest knocks by a No. 11 in the history of cricket. He was rewarded by losing a Test series on one and having to bowl ten minutes later on the other.
Anderson’s eighth ball of the Indian second innings was edged, Prior missed it. Anderson walked back to his mark again.
On December 24, 1953 at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, South Africa were 259 for 8 at the close of play against New Zealand. The next day, the players had a rest and a lovely Christmas lunch. But there was a massive mud slide at Tangiwai. It took out a bridge. A train went through and couldn’t stop before slamming into the Whangaehu River.
151 people died, including the fiancée of New Zealand seamer Bob Blair. On December 26, play resumed. Blair stayed back at his hotel to grieve. The flags were at half-mast as South Africa made 271.
New Zealand’s innings started terribly, and it got worse as the day went on. Only the legendary Bert Sutcliffe could handle the ferocious Neil Adcock and the inform David Ironside. But he was sent to hospital after a brutal bouncer to the head. Sutcliffe came back out to bat, his head covered in a bandage. With only the tail left, he went past the follow-on. Eventually, at 154, the ninth wicket is taken, and both teams start to walk off the field.
But there is a No. 11 batsman. Bob Blair walks out. Sutcliffe puts his arm around him. The crowd applaud Blair’s act. In the next ten minutes they score 33, mostly in sixes. Sutcliffe hits many of them. Blair hits one of them.
It is one of the greatest moments in cricket history, and all that happened is a No. 11 walked out to bat.
My dad made two 47s batting at No. 11. And one day, while I was old enough to understand what was happening, he hit two sixes over midwicket. That is the only positive memory I have of watching my dad bat.
Anderson’s innings was another piece of history for cricket’s most comical and undervalued batting position.
Every No. 11 needs that one great moment. That amazing draw, a nerve-killing win, the best comical dismissal, a six off a fast bowler, a nagging never-ending partnership, a proper score or that time they came out when they really shouldn’t have. They deserve it for having to suffer the many embarrassments of batting where they bat: the bad decisions from grumpy umpires moving the game forward; the confusion at not understanding which way the ball is spinning; trying to face a ball that is bowled at a speed quicker than you can see.
Until you know what it is like to walk out on the field as a No. 11, with the opposition sniggering, and your team preparing to take the field behind you, it’s impossible to know what batting at No. 11 is really like. It takes a special person to bat last.
A young boy gets on a motorbike for the first time. The instructions are given to him. He looks on quietly. People expect him to struggle. Instead he takes to it fairly well. Muddy dirt tracks are handled with ease. He jumps off little ramps and holds on. He mostly works out the brakes and how to turn and tries, but fails, to pull off a wheelie. Eventually he stops, and the next boy gets on. A boy who has ridden a motorbike for years: yet he makes a simple mistake and rides straight into a BBQ.
Alastair Cook’s first ball catches him by surprise. He has more Test hundreds than any other England batsman but he reacts late to the movement into him and an inside edge ends up at backward square leg. It is not a stunning show of confidence as he wanders to the other end confused.
Mohammed Shami’s first ball is a length ball, India’s No. 11 rocked forward and defends with the sort of certainty a man with a Test Average of 3.33 really shouldn’t have. He’s not overawed by his first moment in England. He’s not overawed by facing Stuart Broad. He’s not even overawed by the sudden collapse that has led to him being in. He’s just playing a forward defensive shot.
Cook handles the next few balls fine. A yorker is dug out. He pushes to the legside looking for runs. He is handling the pitch with no demons like it’s a pitch with no demons. The ball is not swinging or seaming.
Shami also handles his first few balls well. They bowl short, and he defends well and misses when trying to attack. He cracks one to point. And turns a ball into the leg side to get off the mark.
Shami’s first boundary is a heave over the legside against a confused James Anderson. Shami is full of confidence having survived for a while and is now flexing a bit of muscle. He also whips a ball off his pads so well that he beats a man in the deep. He smacks Moeen Ali long and deep with a dance down the pitch. He cracks a short ball to the point boundary and no fielders move. And then to finally get to his 50 he hits a Test bowler with 358 Test wickets over the sightscreen.
Cook gets a ball on his hip and turns it to the rope.
Shami’s innings is not all grace and beauty. He tries to upper cut one to third man. He mistimes one so badly he can’t even find a fielder. Almost loses his off stump. Almost loses his toe. And is actually caught behind, despite the fact England didn’t hear it. It was a quality innings for a No. 11, but not a quality innings.
Cook’s innings isn’t quality.
Cook faces nine of his ten balls from Shami, including the last one. Getting bowled around your legs can look unlucky. Bowlers don’t plan for it very often. And even when they do, it rarely works. This is the sort of ball that Cook could have literally flicked to the leg side with a blindfold on, handcuffed upside down in a tank of water. Now his head leads away from the ball, his body tumbles after it.
Cook has never been pretty, but now he’s ungainly and needlessly mobile. He can’t stand up properly and exposes the leg stump. The ball flicks his pads and instead of rolling away safely for a leg bye it slams into legs tump. Cook has lost his way so much he can almost see the ball hitting the stumps.
Mohammed Shami had made a 50 before today, for Bengal U-22s four years ago. Alastair Cook has made 35 fifties at Test Level. Not forgetting 19 fifties in ODIs. There are also a few hundreds. And he once made 294. But Cook hasn’t scored more than 51 in his last five Tests.
Today the bunny with no batting pedigree scored more runs than the man with 8,130 runs.
Today two men batted: one with little expectation or hope, the other with fear and uncertainty. One made an unbeaten. The other hit the BBQ.
Alastair Cook did a slow depressing jog from the ground. His team had taken the final Sri Lanka wicket of the series.
England were scattered across the ground in various positions. All looking exhausted and frustrated. They slowly left the ground to a small applause. An automatic applause, like saying sorry to someone who has bumped into you on the street.
Cook had already left the ground before his team; he had a trudging jog off to prepare for the chase. There was no applause as he left.
“Oh you pretty sweet red little baby, I love the way you smell and swing. I cannot wait for you to help me. You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for you.”
England couldn’t have shown any less regard for the old ball had they all stopped to spit on it. They might as well have offered Sri Lanka 40 runs off the first seven overs of the day as a deal to move the game on. Offering players like Mahela Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews a warm up is never, ever, ever a good idea. As Sri Lanka started to hit the ball wherever they wanted, England looked more feeble and completely idiotic.
And despite all this rush to the new ball, Moeen Ali only received one of England’s throwaway overs. The last one. It was the only over he would bowl in the first 167 minutes of play.
Then they got that most fetishised of items, the second new ball. But instead of just bowling short or wide with the new ball, as they did on Sunday, they combined the two. If cricket had a dictionary, this bowling was its definition of awful. James Anderson looked tired, injured, grumpy and was clearly upset with the footmarks. After much short wideness, Anderson recalibrated and bowled full down the leg side. Stuart Broad’s short and wide almost worked. A poor ball, received a poor shot, before a poor effort from Ian Bell dropped it.
By this stage in the innings, England’s beehive is so erratic you can’t even see the little shadowy batsmen behind it. Their pitch mat looks like someone dropped a plate of food. And then vomited on it.
Then England found a slight ray of sunshine. Anderson got Jayawardene. Liam Plunkett took two more and got himself on a hat-trick. Sri Lanka’s terribly feeble, virtually useless tail was right there, right for England to bite the head off of. Even during this glorious time when wickets fell magically around them, England still used a review for an lbw no human being has been drunk enough to ever give out. But Sri Lanka are seven wickets down, less than 200 ahead. This is England’s time.
The hat-trick ball attempt could have been one where Cook showed Mathews he wasn’t that worried about him, that he felt England had got their swag back. That they were ready to get back on top. He could have brought the field in, even a few catchers, and then kept them in the ring just to change the game a bit on Mathews after three quick wickets. Instead the field had many sweepers. Virtually no catchers. If he was unlucky enough to be caught on the hat-trick ball, it was likely to be at wide long-on.
Strangely he was not caught that way.
England then played every old cricketer’s favourite game of hoping they can dismiss the tailender by stealing a couple of balls at him in between the batsman hitting them for boundaries. It’s hard at the best of times, and harder when Angelo Mathews is batting like the world has been waiting for him and three of your seamers have abandoned line and length.
England went after it with their last bit of energy, Mathews smacked the ball back over their head and laughed at them.
By this point, Sri Lanka’s No. 9 Rangana Herath felt so comfortable he pulled out the back-foot cover drive. Which against an international bowler is like leading with your right. Instead he scoops it up in the air. Broad looks up, moves the wrong way, then moves slowly the right way, and then chases it like a dog who wouldn’t know what do to with it if he got it.
Mathews dominated them so much, they were lucky if they got to start an over against Herath early on. Chris Jordan had one. Jordan started with a shin-high full toss. Herath pushed it through covers and even gave himself enough time to run three. So then England decided to try a 7-2 off-side field to keep Mathews on strike. Jordan fired one down the leg side with no one behind square. Had England hit the boundary for Mathews, they could not have been any more accommodating. They did manage to keep Mathews on strike at the end of the over – he missed a knee-high full toss off the last ball. This was a horribly painful over for England fans, but it wasn’t much worse than any of the others.
England fluttered away another review on a ball that hit Herath on the groin. When Mathews finally got to 99, England didn’t seem to notice. Cook didn’t bring in the sweepers. Sure, Mathews would have got his hundred anyway. He may have got it if England had asked the 300 members of the crowd to come out. So, why delay the inevitable.
Broad tried an over of around the wicket, intentionally-down-the-leg-side bowling with Matt Prior standing at a fine leg slip. He is wided straight away. Anderson tries the opposite, an over of as wide as he can outside off stump. He’s wided as well. And then no one thinks to put out a third man, so Mathews flashes it exactly there. England have now even run out of stupid ideas. And that stage, England’s most sensible decision would have been letting Sri Lanka bat on too long to force a result.
Herath swept on to the back of his pad flap, it bounced up beautifully for Prior to take a quick-thinking catch. Prior saw it. Prior made the ground. Prior dropped the catch. Prior’s face is in the dirt. A visual representation of his keeping over the last few Tests.
England are saved the embarrassment of Herath’s fifty only by Mathews running him out. They finally take Mathews with a knee-high full toss. He had clearly used up all his awesome. Shaminda Eranga slaps England around, which at this stage is basically cricket abuse.
England need 350 runs with 10 wickets in hand.
Gary Ballance misses the quick skiddy one. Sam Robson nicks off chasing on the up. Ian Bell misses the one that nipped back. But then comes in the nightwatchman.
In cricket’s most rubbish position is Plunkett. While he may be a massive presence out on the ground, it doesn’t intimidate much as nightwatchman. There is a bit of King Kong about him, Sri Lanka are buzzing loudly and firing often. Plunkett’s been forced to climb the building only to get to the top and realise it’s pointless and is now clinging to the building rather uselessly. Then, instead of being brought down by enemy fire after safely putting Alastair Cook down carefully, Plunkett just jumped off the building taking Cook with him. One last mistake, falling to earth with the most pathetic of drives, confused and upset.
England need 293 runs with 5 wickets in hand.
England are 39 for 0.
Dhammika Prasad is bowling his skiddy medium fast stuff from over the wicket. He drops one short on off stump. To the left-hander it is going well outside off stump. The batsman decides to pull. The ball doesn’t get up as he would like. It takes the under edge and ducks back into the stumps.
Alastair Cook rocks his head back. Looks at the screen on as he leaves the field on his own. There is no applause again.
Sam Robson struggles outside off stump. That is the general consensus. The cricket elite, twitterers and taxi drivers have spoken. Cricket gospel is written and evangelized by them.
But don’t all batsmen since the beginning of overarm bowling have a problem just outside off stump in the corridor of uncertainty? Or whatever people call it now. Then there is the length, which is rarely described much more than just back of a length. It is the magic spot that Test bowlers from around the world hit.
You cannot drive it. You cannot pull it. You cannot cut it. It is just close and uncomfortable, like Hessian underwear, or that creepy bloke from the pub.
The ball is left outside off stump with the assurance of a man who knows spiritually where his off stump is at all times. In his sleep, or during an attack by giant moody birds. His straight bat comes down so safely that an edge would seem like a rude shock. Runs do not flow, they often barely trickle. But every ball faced takes up more time. Bowlers tire as the ball loses colour, shape and hardness.
That is how Nick Compton plays. Today Compton used none of those skills out on a cricket ground, but was instead on a bus to Nottingham taking photos of people playing cards and a selfie of himself in sunglasses.
It was Sam Robson who used them.
Robson leaves the ball well. His bat is straight. He covers the off stump. He rocks onto his front foot. Yet, in his first Test he went out twice to fairly standard deliveries. The first time was after just a few balls. It seemed like Sri Lanka had either done their homework on Robson, or just bowled fractionally outside off stump as you would with the new ball to practically any human being.
The second innings at Lord’s was longer. But Sri Lanka refused to leave his awkward spot alone. If they went straight, he clipped it on the leg side and scored easily. Outside off stump he scored once. An edge past slips. There was no push to point’s left hand, or dabs short of cover, no forcing, or opening the face, he just went nowhere.
Eventually he ran into Shaminda Eranga, who bowled the best spell of the Test and tortured Robson outside off stump. It was the two outswingers and one straight ball combination that had Robson dragging a ball back onto his stumps. Enough was seen. You did not need to be the Sri Lankan video analyst to suggest he had a broken technique.
It is hard to clean bowl Sam Robson. Early in his innings he protects his off stump like a grumpy old man with a shotgun protecting his youngest daughter’s virginity. A middle-stump guard quickly becomes more of an off stump with an early trigger shuffle. It gives him more balls at his strength on his pads than most batsmen would get.
For all the talk about his weaknesses, he does have scoring zones. He can cut, in county cricket they talk of pull shots and overpitching will result in him driving. But it is that awkward line on that awkward length that people talked about the most. His biggest problem with this zone is not a weakness, but dryness.
Robson does not score when the ball is there. Virtually at all. He does not hit boundaries to put pressure on the bowler. As a top order churner, he does not have to. But he also does not find singles. He cannot get off strike. He is just a slow moving target protecting his weak spot.
His first 50 balls today in this area had Robson scoring four runs from the seamers. Against Eranga in that time, it was one run off his first 30 balls there. That is five overs of a bowler bowling in the exact zone of trouble without the batsman getting off strike more than once.
Now exchange the name of Eranga for Steyn, Harris or Boult. Would anyone want to give them 30 balls at you without getting off strike? Would many be able to? In first-class cricket you can sit on a bowler for a while. In Test cricket, the bowlers will sit on you.
Analysts the world over will mine every single aspect of Robson’s strong willed, disciplined, nuggety, patient hundred today. He might have made 127, but his metadata score will be far higher. The video packages will show ball after ball of him not getting off strike. Plans will be hatched, attacks will be prepared and pitch maps will be emailed.
Robson will patiently try to outlive them. That is his most impressive trait. Patience. It could be used against him, but he certainly will not run out of it anytime soon. You can only imagine the stick he received as a young guy playing the patience game in Sydney grade cricket while hummer driving bankers from Paddington and bearded brickies from Blacktown abused him for never playing a shot.
Nothing about his batting against seam bowling even hints at coming from Australia at all. His pointy back elbow makes him look like an accountant from Somerset. His fidgeting with his front bad is straight out of Millfield School. And the squat bounce at the crease is often seen at places that sound like Thurrock, Frieth and Whitestaunton. Until he moves out of the crease against spin, his batting is as English as Gooch’s back lift, Grace’s belly or Atherton being caught down the leg side.
The ball was full and wide, Robson chased it and drove it efficiently and inelegantly into the covers. He ran hard, and easily made his second run, and then looked for a third. Having scored his 100th run, he did not throw the bat up, abandon a potential run, take his helmet off, kiss any logos, jump or even show any acknowledgement to the crowd. He looked for a third.
Sam Robson may make a lot of Test runs, but he will have to work harder and longer than most to make them. He will always be looking for a third.
Alastair Cook spent most of the time in the second Ashes watching Michael Clarke’s never ending orgasm of delight. And at the end, as you might do in a rom-com set in Katz’s Deli, he asked for what Clarke was having. He wanted a Mitchell Johnson.
Sport teams have quite a clear history in being beaten by a style or tactic, and then trying to replicate it themselves. It is how sport works. It is how music works. It is how movies works. It is how life works. This idea works. Let’s do this idea.
So there was no real surprise that England would pick the closest thing to Mitchell Johnson they could find. Liam Plunkett. That is what we were told before Lord’s. He was fast, he had been trained in the secret ways of Australian fast bowlers by Jason Gillespie. Andrew Gale had even used him like Johnson. And when he hit the pitch it was usually very short, with a field set for carnage.
But it did not really work. The pitch did not suit it. And Liam Plunkett also did not suit it.
His two wickets were when he bowled full. When he just continued punching the middle of the pitch he just bloodied his knuckles for no good reason. His pitch maps looked like he was trying to paint a stripe across the middle of the wicket. It was fast and accurate, but it was largely fruitless. They had picked a fast bowler, but by insisting he bowled huge long spells of short bowling they had turned him into a confused shire horse.
Three overs from the end of the Lord’s Test, with Sri Lanka eight down, Plunkett was bowled ahead of Stuart Broad. When the ball was given back to Broad for the last over, it was because Plunkett had not looked like taking a wicket, and could not be trusted by Cook to deliver.
Today he could not stop delivering. His full swinging ball to Dimuth Karunaratne would have made the England coaching staff fill notebooks with joy. He was fast and full again to Mahela Jayawardene. Then followed it up with the short ball that Lahiru Thirimanne seemed shocked to see. And then followed it up with some good old fashioned bombing of the tail.
But there was also a full ball to Kumar Sangakkara that was probably caught behind, and no one appealed, reviewed or even really seemed to notice from England. A short-of-a-length ball that took off from the pitch, took the edge and then wedged itself into Prior’s ribcage. And the short ball that Jayawardene hooked to a shocked leg slip.
By bowling his short ball less, Plunkett got more out of it. This pitch is not the WACA, or even Old Trafford, but Plunkett looked far quicker and scarier than the others, no matter his length. In using the short ball as an exclamation mark, instead of a comma, he made more of an impact. Plunkett outbowled them.
Plunkett has spent this time in the wilderness well. He has used it to become a beast of a man; he looks more light heavyweight than fast bowler. If the team bus ever breaks down, they would be fine getting Plunkett to drag it around town. This is essentially the same action he had when he was a whispy kid with a Test bowling average of 40 and hope in his heart. He has made it higher and stronger. On his own. Away from David Saker and the England machine.
Other than Plunkett’s determination and hard work, it is the county system that England has often ignored of recent times that virtually put Plunkett back together again. Yorkshire, Gale and Gillespie found a fast bowler in 2012 that was not being used by his county and within a few months at their club they had him playing England Lions, and by the first Test of the following summer he was in the team.
Yorkshire might just have given England an old player their new era needs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The ball is a leg-stump length ball. George Bailey drop kicks it to deep backward square for a boundary. Australia are 492 ahead.
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.
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.
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.
The ball tails in at very nearly yorker length. George Bailey hits it onto the sightscreen covered seats with ease. Australia are 504 ahead.
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.
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.