The England player I shall be keeping the closest eye on in this two-parter (you can’t call two matches a “series” with a straight face) is Jimmy Anderson, who could show that he is at last coming into his own.
His performances in the ODIs may make this seem far-fetched, but he has always been fairly poor in limited-overs cricket whereas his Test performances this year have been in a different league to those which went before.
How poor an ODI bowler he is was not apparent until he was partnered by someone who isn’t. In the 20 ODIs in which they opened England’s bowling this year, both Anderson and Stuart Broad conceded 747 runs. The difference is that Anderson took 10 wickets and went for 5.66 an over while Broad took 31 and went for 4.78.
In nine Tests this year, on the other hand, Anderson has taken 42 wickets at 27.60. Where one struggles to find ODIs in which he has even performed acceptably, in Tests he has had only two poor innings this year, the worst being at Old Trafford when Ross Taylor climbed into him. But he responded in the next game at Trent Bridge with the best spell of bowling by an England bowler since 2005 (at least), the figures a career-best 7 for 43.
Blowing away the 2008 New Zealand top order is admittedly not all that difficult – a light breeze would usually suffice – but Anderson’s spell of late swing at speed would have accounted for at least four of any top order you care to name.
The big difference for Anderson between the two forms comes in the field settings. When not bowling his victims or having them caught by the keeper, first slip catches off him are comparatively rare. In Tests, Anderson’s chief collaborators stand in the arc from third slip to gully. In ODIs, batsmen hit him through that arc with great regularity but no-one is around to catch them.
It was not ever thus. For four years from his England debut while Duncan Fletcher still headed the coaching staff, constant efforts were made to get him to change his bizarre action. In particular, they wanted him to look down the wicket at the stumps or batsman when releasing the ball rather than gazing at the bowler’s end umpire’s shoes. Very occasionally during this purgatorial period there would be a gem of a searing spell to remind us that there was a talented bowler lurking somewhere in the neighbourhood, but we would wait months for a repeat.
But since Fletcher moved on and Ottis Gibson has taken over the bowling coach’s job, Anderson has been allowed to revert to his natural action and the results have been dramatically better.
The fascinating question is whether he will be able to continue his Test success streak in conditions rather different to those encountered in England and New Zealand. It ought to be possible: both Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan bowl the same general sort of stuff and do well in India, but then they’ve been doing it forever whereas Anderson still has a lot of learning to do about Indian pitches.
If England are to do well, there will need to be big contributions from several players. If Anderson does to Sehwag what Matthew Hoggard did to Matt Hayden in the 2005 Ashes, he will have taken another big step forward as well as giving underdogs England a fighting chance.