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England's attack-leader showed the tourists how far he has come with a fine all-round display
July 17, 2009
Incredible as it may seem, James Anderson is the third longest-serving cricketer on display in this match. Ricky Ponting rumbles ever onwards, and will soon pass Allan Border as Australia's leading run-scorer; Andrew Flintoff has rumbled as far as his dodgy knee can take him, and will soon take his leave of the Test arena. Next in seniority comes Anderson, six years into his time at the top, but still striving to prove that the splash he made in his debut year of 2003 was anything other than a load of froth.
And yet, maybe, just maybe, his time has finally arrived. The suspicion all season has been that Anderson is England's coming man. His command of swing, at high pace and in both directions, has at times left opponents gawping at his skill - he was too good for West Indies, and New Zealand had no answer last year either - but the Australians, you sense, have never really rated his ticker.
To them, he is a confidence cricketer whom it is all too easy to dominate. Until today, the only favourable impression he had ever made against them was during his debut ODI series down under in 2002-03, in particular when his buzzing full length gave Michael Bevan the run-around at Adelaide, but ever since then, he's been all too easily cowed. He was flogged at four-and-a-half an over in three Ashes Tests in 2006-07, having previously been shunned for the epic summer of 2005 - binned from the squad by a wary Duncan Fletcher, despite having toured the world as a net bowler throughout England's run of momentum-building victories.
Today, however, he seized his chance to put the past behind him, and set about proving that the boy has become a man. In truth, the signs have been there for ages - and in all facets of his game. In the field he is arguably the most agile and committed fast bowler on the planet (Stuart Broad's impressive diving catch notwithstanding), while the pride with which he protects his remarkable run of duckless Test innings (51 and counting) is backed up by the guts and determination he has displayed since succeeding Matthew Hoggard as England's designated nightwatchman.
In the past 12 months he has withstood pummellings from Dale Steyn and Fidel Edwards, among others, without retreating an inch, all of which set him up for the performance at Cardiff that not only kick-started England's summer, but massaged his personal mindset into a state of Ashes readiness. His thrilling last-wicket stand with Monty Panesar - 69 balls of match-saving dedication - enabled him to gloss over a bowling effort that had been short, wide and swingless, and reminded him to view his oldest opponents as equals.
"I wouldn't know what my record is against Australia, I've not played much against them," he protested, without quite convincing anyone he meant it. As it happens, prior to this match he had claimed seven wickets against them at 74.71, a record almost double that of his overall Test average. At Lord's on the other hand, he had taken 24 wickets in six Tests at 27.79, including two of his six five-wicket hauls. He likes the surroundings, and today it showed.
"We used the fact that we got out of jail a bit [at Cardiff], and were still in the series at 0-0, and we knew we had to take advantage," said Anderson. "We didn't want to waste getting a draw by coming here and not performing." That meant playing to his strengths - aiming full and inviting lateral movement - rather than allowing over-elaborate gameplans to confuse his basic approach. The early dismissal of Phillip Hughes may have been a strangle down the leg-side, but at least he was not drawn into a naïve attempt to bludgeon him from the crease, as was the misguided case at Cardiff.
Besides, he had a man at the other end who could perform that role to perfection. Flintoff had been overlooked for the new ball in the first Test, and Andrew Strauss had the good sense to recognise his error and rectify it. Though Anderson has rarely bowled well with the big man alongside him in the side, today the pair meshed superbly. By bowling them in tandem, instead of one after the other, it no longer felt as though Flintoff was looming over Anderson's shoulder, waiting to pick up the pieces when his new-ball burst had been repelled.
At last they were equals in England's attack - the lanky enforcer pushing the Australians back into the crease, and the zippy destroyer dragging them forward again. "I think the way Fred bowled in that first six-over spell from the Pavilion End, he can take as much credit for those wickets as I can," said Anderson. "The Nursery End hasn't got much pace, you can't really bang it in, but as we saw from Broady and Fred, there's a little bit more from [the other] end, so the balance was pretty good."
These days there's a stature about Anderson that cannot be communicated through his forever softly-spoken words. Only his deeds can put the point across. "He's getting better results now so probably his self-confidence is a bit higher now than what it was in Australia," said Mike Hussey, who was one of his chief tormentors in Australia three years ago. "It seems like he has improved, but he seems a very similar bowler to what I faced in 2006-07."
Perhaps he is. After all, you cannot be a Test candidate for six years without possessing an innate quality that forces the selectors to keep coming back to you - and England certainly believed in his je ne sais quoi when they plucked him from Burnley league cricket as a 20-year-old. What matters is that Anderson, at last, believes in it himself.
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