July 17, 2013

Shane Anderson, anyone?

James Anderson mesmerises with skill, Graeme Swann outwits with subtle variations. Not unlike another combination from a few years ago

If Anderson don't get you, Swann must Gareth Copley / © Getty Images

The impact of an all-conquering team and individuals goes far beyond the immediate and local. In Australia these days, every spinner is appraised through the Shane Warne prism, every fast bowler is pitted against Glenn McGrath. It is the fate that befalls those who follow in the shadows of the greats, and the effect of the teams led by Taylor, Waugh and Ponting goes much farther than Australia's shores.

Some of the effects of Australia's dominance have been in evidence the most in England. David Saker, then of Australia, now of England, recently said he sees shades of McGrath and Warne in the way Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann operate in tandem. He was referring to the way they put pressure on a batting team and work batsmen out as a pair. There were no explicit comparisons made, and the immediate inference a lot of people made was that he was comparing McGrath to Anderson and Swann to Warne, and endless debates ensued on the fairness of the comparison.

Comparisons between players are fraught with peril and similarities are often debatable and tenuous. But I'm going to go ahead anyway. I find more similarities between Anderson and Warne, and Swann and McGrath than the more apparent ones, between the spinners and the fast bowlers. I'll underline the fact that it is the similarities I'm talking about. No one is suggesting these current Englishmen are the equals of the great Australians. Nor was Saker. Not just yet.

Anderson's mastery of swing comes with a dash of genius, even if it has flowered a little late. At his best (which is quite often nowadays), it is as if he has got the ball on a proverbial string. He curves it this way, then that. Curl in, curl out - beautiful, deep, curving, swing - at pace. First conventional, then reverse. Anderson's control and the dexterity of his swing are captivating. He lays out all his wares and gets batsmen in a tizzy before getting them out. Much like Warne did.

Dale Steyn, the other great fast bowler of the day, gives you the more visceral thrill of watching high-class, out-and-out fast bowling. But for sheer penetrative, multi-dimensional variety, Anderson tops my list of current fast men. He has got it all. Which is why he reminds me of watching Warne bowl.

The supreme confidence and control over the flight of a cricket ball made Warne's bowling more an exhibition of skill rather than merely an execution of intent. Anderson has, after his initial struggles, found nearly the same level of confidence in his abilities, and he now puts on a real all-round show of skill. Why, he's even got that John McEnroe scowl these days.

When you started defending against McGrath, you could be sure you were a goner. The same is true of batting versus Swann

Anderson and Warne hold you in thrall, like only artists at work can. Crowds throng to see Anderson bowl, and the ball hasn't been swung consistently both ways and with so much control in years. The only thing missing is the rising drama of Warne's slow shuffle-in. And the mesmerising flight that adds to the romance of a ball that breaks from leg. Of course Anderson can scarcely be blamed for that.

Swann on the other hand is a master of subtle variations, a lot like McGrath. When McGrath bowled to Rahul Dravid a while ago at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, some of us seated deep in the North Stand put up our feet, leaned back and relaxed, secure in the knowledge that the New South Welshman had found his temperamental match. McGrath would aim at fourth stump and Dravid - unless he felt there was sufficient movement inward - would leave deliveries alone. I'm over-simplifying things, but this was the gist of the sentiment in the stands on that day.

Swann's fairly unique deep-knuckled grip and even more unique double wind-up into his final gather are aimed at imparting as many revolutions on the ball as possible. It's also to get the ball to swerve away before spinning back in. Swann puts every ounce of his energy into his body action. While this might be at odds with McGrath's easy-seeming mode of delivery, the effect it has on batsmen is strikingly similar.

Batsmen end up defending against the tight line of attack and often can't withstand the continuous, abrasive targeting of their defensive technique. When you started defending against McGrath (unless perhaps you were Dravid) you could be sure you were a goner. The same is true of batting versus Swann. Your awareness of your off stump and the extent to which your front foot lunges across are put through the most searching examination, especially if you are a left-hander. Attack, and more importantly, a turning over of the strike, are crucial to survival.

To my delight, Swann even emulated the pre-series speak McGrath was famous for, by declaring that he would target the best batsman in the opposition.

What could we have expected if Warne combined with Anderson and McGrath with Swann? With the former pair, batsmen might end up in a complete whirl, in a fair twist, unsure of whether they should be more aware of their leg stump or ponder their off.

Faced with the prospect of the latter, we would have seen a sudden decline of left-handers, especially the dour ones - except for those twinkle-toed, bright-eyed southpaws. Speaking of which, where have those light of foot and left of hand gone? Where is the next Lara?