The Ashes 2010-11 December 31, 2010

Anderson grows into a leader

"I don't know what it feels like," groaned James Anderson on the morning after the night before. The Ashes had been retained and the celebrations had, by all accounts, been a controlled explosion - sufficiently forceful to shake the foundations of the team hotel in South Yarra, but at the same time respectful to the circumstances of a series that remains to be wrapped up. It is a measure of an astonishingly well-thought-out campaign that even the moments of euphoria have been professional.

And so it was that, even through the fog of his hangover, it was possible to glimpse in Anderson the character that has carried him towards the pinnacle of his career. His softly spoken words were made softer still by the throbbing in his head, but if you listened carefully they had an unmistakable edge to them - emboldened, no doubt, by the triumph to which he had contributed only 24 hours previously.

"I always knew that I had a lot more ability and skill than I showed in my early career," said Anderson. "I knew I could improve a hell of a lot, and I also knew I could perform at this level because I did so to a certain extent when I started out. So I just thought if I could try and improve as much as I can, work hard at my game, I could perform for England.

"It's a great achievement, and it was an amazing place to do it at the MCG," he added. "It was a fantastic atmosphere from the English fans, and a great place to retain the Ashes. For me and the rest of the team, we've grown up watching some unsuccessful trips to Australia, and I've been involved in one in the past, so it was a dream come true, and brilliant to be part of such a fantastic performance."

Anderson deserves his moment more than most. Not only is he the leading wicket-taker in the series with 17 scalps at 29.29, he has also matured into his role as the true leader of the England pack - a process that might have looked inevitable when he made his international debut at the MCG back in 2002-03, an astonishing eight years ago this month, but which had seemed virtually inconceivable in the latter years of Duncan Fletcher's reign. On the last Ashes tour Anderson had seemed belittled and withdrawn, an ever-wobbly spare wheel whose five wickets at 82.60 were a precise reflection of his fragile state of mind.

Now, however, he is a character transformed, a player who has burrowed so deep into Australia's psyche that one of his worthier opponents of the series, Shane Watson, described an error that he made while batting as a nightwatchman on the third evening at Perth as "one of his favourite moments on a cricket field". Such hyperbole betrays the extent to which Anderson has rattled the opposition on this trip - the "pussy" who was derided by Justin Langer in his leaked dossier during the 2009 Ashes has grown a mane and learnt to roar.

In the opinion of David Saker, England's plaudit-strewn bowling coach, Anderson is close to becoming the best fast bowler in the world, with only South Africa's No. 1-ranked Dale Steyn challenging him in terms of current form, and on the evidence of 2010 it is hard to disagree. At Melbourne, he became the 13th England bowler to pass 200 Test wickets, but 49 - or nearly a quarter - of those have come in the past 12 months, including a career-best 11 for 71 in the first Test against Pakistan in July, and two critical first-innings four-fors in each of England's Ashes wins at Adelaide and Melbourne.

Anderson has been learning how to lead, and right now he is the kingpin in an England seam attack in which any three of six fast bowlers could be trusted to front up and perform their duties for England

While Anderson acknowledges Saker's role in tightening up his methods on pitches that do not offer natural swing, he puts the rest of his dramatic improvement down to the work ethic that comes from representing a team on the up in the world game, and an eye for detail that comes with experience of international cricket.

"It's just practice," he said. "I've learnt from watching a number of other international cricketers, and tried to develop different sorts of deliveries. Mohammad Asif hits the seam and wobbles it, and can swing it as well, so I learnt from that last summer, and last time we were in India, Zaheer Khan was hiding the ball went it was reversing so I picked that up from him and tried to develop it to suit me. Also you also listen to your own top-order batsmen, and what they find difficult facing."

Long consigned to the dustbin is the notion that Anderson would be an easy beat on the flat Australian pitches, when armed with the Kookaburra ball and its mechanically stitched, bowler-unfriendly seam. Like Matthew Hoggard on the 2006-07 tour, Anderson has developed his methods as a natural swinger of the ball, and armed himself with enough tricks to prove a handful regardless of the conditions.

The process, however, has not been an overnight one, no matter how suspicious the Aussies may have been of his credentials going into the Gabba Test. And in the same week in which Kevin Pietersen revisited old feuds with his reference to the demise of Peter Moores, Anderson provided another reminder that, regardless of how maligned the former coach may have been by hindsight, he did have his moments during his brief stint at the helm.

The start of Anderson's second coming as an international cricketer was at Wellington in March 2008, when Moores purged Hoggard and Steve Harmison from England's front line, and the thrusting young pairing of Anderson and Stuart Broad were handed the pace bowling duties alongside Ryan Sidebottom. Anderson's first act was to take five first-innings wickets in a series-levelling victory, and since that date he's taken 143 of his tally at 28.23.

"When Peter Moores was in charge, he wanted me to lead the attack and gave me a lot of responsibility in New Zealand," said Anderson. "Hoggard and Harmison got dropped, me and Broady came in - it really was a lot of faith in us, and it boosted my confidence. And we've also had the bowling coaches since then - Ottis [Gibson] was fantastic, Allan Donald I really enjoyed working with, and now Sakes has been brilliant. We've all been developing some good skills, because we've shown in the four games so far we can swing the ball, seam the ball and reverse-swing the ball."

More than that, however, Anderson has been learning how to lead, and right now he is the kingpin in an England seam attack in which any three of six fast bowlers could be trusted to front up and perform their duties for England. It's a far cry from the little boy lost who once used to take the field for England in venues as diverse as Johannesburg, Adelaide and Colombo, and find his methods dissected as quickly as his morale used to evaporate.

To his credit, Anderson recognises his flaws of yesteryear, and like his counterpart in the middle order, Ian Bell, has worked extra hard to eradicate them. Instead of shirking the confrontation, he's developed a willingness to square up to all opponents, not least Mitchell Johnson whose one glorious spell at Perth has been undermined by a raft of supine performances, in which he himself has looked a bit like the Anderson of old - toiling for swing, baffled by its absence and bereft of explanations for why.

"Body language is a huge thing, certainly as a bowler," said Anderson. "You don't want to be seen trudging back to your mark all the time, so I try to keep my shoulders back and be as positive as possible, because in the past I've been pretty average in that respect. There's a difference between various people telling me and me actually seeing it when we look at games back on TV. I could obviously see that it wasn't good enough."

And much like the excitement surrounding Australia's increased chirpiness in the field at Perth, Anderson has discovered that a well-placed comment is every bit as potent as a well-directed bouncer, especially when you are the side on top. "I think it's just part of my natural game," he said. "I don't always do it, but it gets me fired up when the time is right, and I try to pick my players as well as I possibly can.

"I don't really have a favourite, but there are players not to pick," he added. "Ponting, if you get under his skin, he's more likely to dig in and enjoy the contest, so we might stay away from him. I think in the past it was an emotional thing that just came out, but over the last couple of years I've learned to control it much better. Whatever goes on when I've bowled a ball, I know when I go back to my mark I'm 100% focused on what I'm about to do with the ball."

For all of the revelry of Melbourne, however, Anderson concedes that the job's not done yet. "We want to go out on a high, whether that's 2-1 or 3-1, because to go home 2-2 would take the gloss off," he said. "Four years ago was a completely different story and not worth remembering to be honest, but it will be a nicer feeling knowing that we can not just retain the Ashes but win the series. We celebrated [on Friday] and deservedly so, but we've put that behind us to focus on five days at Sydney. It's really important we go out on a high in the series."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo