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James Anderson, England’s Emeritus Professor of Fast Bowling

John Stern by John Stern 4 minute read

Against Pakistan in Southampton, James Anderson became the first-ever quick to reach 600 Test wickets. John Stern marvelled at the Lancastrian’s longevity when he reached 500 Test wickets three summers ago.

First published in 2017

It’s August 2011 and England have just become the No.1 Test side in the world after a third successive defeat of India. Jimmy Anderson is sitting in the stands at The Oval, musing on his and his side’s success.

He’s friendly enough and relatively forthcoming but he’s making his interviewer work for his quotes. On or off the field, he’s not going to give anyone easy runs. One of the talking points of the summer has been his ‘wobble seam’ delivery, the ball that doesn’t swing but keeps the batsman guessing right until it pitches as to which way, if any, it might deviate.

I ask what’s different about this particular delivery from his stock out-swingers and in-swingers. In my head, it was obvious that I was essentially asking how he did it but Jimmy preferred to take the question at absolute face value. “Er, because it wobbles,” he replied. Dead. Pan. He’d said earlier in the chat, in relation to his burgeoning media double-act with Graeme Swann, that he wanted to show people that he “wasn’t just a grumpy fast bowler”. Yet here he was doing a passable impression of one.

As I’m writing this, Anderson is producing a masterful summary of various West Indies bowlers’ techniques on Sky. Dressed nattily in a three-piece suit, he is bringing style and substance to the middle-aged blokeishness of the TV commentary box.

He seems a natural, in part because he is sparing with his words. Broadcasting has moved a long way from the Richie Benaud maxims of ‘Don’t speak unless you can add to the pictures’ or ‘Engage brain before opening mouth’.

This is a man described by Alec Swann, brother of Graeme and a former county teammate of Anderson’s, as “painfully shy” when he first arrived in the Lancashire dressing room. This was a decade-and-a-half ago. And while Anderson has been at the top of his game for at least a third of that time, his longevity shows just how hard it is to reach the very top – and, more to the point, stay there.

I was watching one of those Cricket’s Greatest films on Sky recently about Steve Waugh and I was taken aback to hear him describe himself as “fragile and insecure” for a decent chunk of his early career. This is the same Steve Waugh whose dead-eyed squint became emblematic of Australia’s 1990s ruthlessness. But it’s easy to forget that his first Test century – 177 not out at Headingley in 1989 – came in his 27th match. His was a career of patience, fierce determination and reinvention (from shot-a-ball merchant to dogged, risk-free digger).

A comparison of Anderson and Waugh might not seem an obvious one, yet there are similarities. Anderson flew on to our radar in the summer of 2002 with a series of outlandish performances for Lancashire that propelled him, aged 20, into the England one-day side. And then the following summer, with his dark hair streaked with red, he assumed the role of a cricketing Beckham at a time when an improving England team were crying out for stars.

Those booming away-swingers that scythed down four Pakistanis at Cape Town in the 2003 World Cup have been refined and enhanced. That he is still going and has, by any measure, made the most – and then some – of his obvious talents is testament to his desire and his intelligence. He has had his idiosyncratic bowling action fiddled with but essentially reverted to his original method.

His skills are a wonder to behold. He is England’s leading all-time wicket-taker, but he is so much more than that. He is England’s Emeritus Professor of Fast Bowling. There is no hiding place as a bowler. As a batsman, your bad day might well be short and ends with dismissal followed by the shame-faced walk back to the hutch. For a bowler, a bad day can start poorly – with a leg-stump half-volley being dispatched to the fence – and get worse.

For all the cheap jibes about his home-condition preferences, Anderson has turned himself into an all-surface player, through hard graft and working out how to deliver the skills required for each situation and pitch condition.

England play a lot of Test cricket but as someone who grew up in the era of Botham et al, I marvel at the stats of Anderson, Alastair Cook and Stuart Broad. As a kid I would pore over England’s leading run and wicket tables and wonder how my heroes of the time would ever topple the old-time greats like Cowdrey or Trueman. We have legends in our midst and we should relish their active presence on the field while we can.

England need all of them in Australia but none more than Jimmy, who has spoken about having unfinished business down under. They’ll need a couple of new-ball wickets with that unresponsive Kookaburra and then his control at telling points throughout. Hopefully others can step up too, so that Anderson is not having to bowl 30 overs an innings, which would hasten the fall of the curtain on this 35-year- old’s great career.

So, while it’s goodbye from us, it’s not goodnight from him. More power to his elbow (and wrist and shoulder).

First published in 2017

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