August 6, 2014

Does Anderson need a verbal crutch?

It seems odd that a man who can make the ball talk like he does needs to resort to verbal aggression

Anderson is about to become England's leading wicket-taker, but where is the joy he used to radiate? © AFP

I have often thought of Jimmy Anderson and Ian Bell as shadow images, the batting and bowling equivalents of one another. Their skills are exquisite, refined, an aesthetic delight, yet they can be delicate too: both have endured long losing streaks.

Most of all they had similarly troubled starts in the England side. Bell came up against the 2005 Australians where he was christened "Sherminator" by Shane Warne and was briefly overwhelmed by more skilful opponents. Anderson faced an opponent who proved more insidious: the coaches and bio-mechanists who had him bowling at cones and trying to change his action.

Both appear quiet, somewhat diffident characters who went through periods of self-examination and apparently came up with much the same answer: to impose themselves better on the opposition.

Bell changed his body language and strutted around for a while, but it was not until he began making what were judged to be "hard" hundreds in innings when no other batsman got them that he emerged as a genuinely respected, world-class player. He didn't need the body language any more, and one of the pleasures of his game is the way he slips to the crease and glides to 20 or 30 runs before you really notice that he's there. He has self-knowledge and it's a powerful tool.

Anderson seemed just as quiet, not asserting himself as the leader of England's attack until a stellar year's bowling in 2010. Since then, as his reputation has risen in tandem with his haul of wickets, he has become more and more vocal, disguising his sledging from the cameras as carefully as he hides his inswinger from the man on strike.

What began perhaps as on-field leadership, the need to externalise the aggression he had been bringing silently to his own bowling, has mutated into something else, a relentless kind of abusive sledging that has so inflamed the Indian side that the Jadeja case may well end up in the European Court of Human Rights or the Hague, so unwilling are they to let it drop. In the eyes of his opponents (among whom we should also count Michael Clarke and his "get ready for a broken arm" moment) he has crossed whatever line it is that exists in their moral code.

It seems odd that a man who can make the ball talk needs a verbal crutch, yet the England mood music suggests that Anderson, if not being encouraged, is certainly being supported in his approach. Most odd of all, it so patently doesn't work. His last two full years of Test bowling, during which he has shouldered through more than 1000 overs, have been his most expensive since his breakthrough in 2010. He has been at his most visibly irascible during that time. As the Independent's Stephen Brenkley said during Sky's Cricket Writers On TV programme last week, there has been "very little joy" in Anderson's demeanour, which is sad for a man about to become his country's greatest-ever wicket-taker.

All of this can be seen as England's problem. If it's how they want to play, then so be it. Test cricket is not a popularity contest, it's a man's game - and all of those other truisms that professional cricketers like to trot out. The consequences will be theirs to bear.

If that was where it ended, I would agree. But sledging already holds an unhealthy grip on the impressionable minds of some fans and amateur players, as if it is some kind of magic elixir that can re-shape the game. There are books collecting the wisdom of Eddo Brandes and Lenny Pascoe - admittedly they are slim volumes, but there's evidently a market.

The reality is far more prosaic, as the leaked transcripts of Anderson's hearing have shown. "You f***ing prick", "You f***ing c***"… If it's a psychological tool, it's a blunt one, hardly worth being fetishised.

Yet it is, by players of all stripes. In his online diary of a season in club cricket, All Out Cricket writer Ed Kemp reported on a recent league match in which two outgoing batsmen were barged off the square, and a fielder yelled "Taste it!" in the face of another.

Anecdotally, Ed's doesn't appear to be an isolated experience. My days of league cricket have long gone: from memory it was often tough but rarely silly. What I think has happened is that media access to the behaviour of pro players has glamorised a part of the game that simply isn't glamorous. What's appropriate - or at least accepted - in their workplace becomes idiotic and misplaced in an amateur game on a Saturday afternoon.

Alastair Cook, rightly, wants to reconnect the England team with its fans, but not like that. Soon, when Jimmy surpasses Ian Botham and perhaps becomes the first Englishman to take 400 Test wickets, we will want to acclaim a magnificent bowler who has made a lasting contribution to our cricket. Continuing to romanticise the small part of his game that detracts from that achievement does him, and us, no service.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here