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At the age of 29, James Anderson is finally achieving the status that seemed pre-ordained when he was plucked from league cricket in Burnley as a 20-year-old
August 14, 2011
In the course of his seven years as England coach, there was no single bowler who caused Duncan Fletcher more head-scratching than James Anderson. Steve Harmison had his frailties and Matthew Hoggard never received the full endorsement of his boss, but both men nevertheless grew to become integral cogs in the last England team to challenge for world domination.
Anderson, by contrast, remained a stranger within the bosom of Fletcher's squad - a muted personality with a muddled mindset, whose precocious arrival on the scene in December 2002 soon gave way to over-coaching and under-use, as a succession of England management staff tried in vain to work out what exactly made him tick. It was fitting, therefore, that on the day England finally attained the status that Fletcher had yearned for throughout his tenure, it was Anderson's irresistible morning spell that provided the final leg-up to the top.
In an extraordinarily one-sided session on the fourth morning, India's batsmen showed they had fewer answers to the Anderson question than Fletcher himself, as they poked and wafted at a flotilla of off-stump screamers. At one stage Anderson had figures of 4 for 34 in ten overs - and this in a contest in which Alastair Cook went 188 overs without offering so much as a chance. The zipping, harrying, relentless examination was more than India cared to deal with, and at 116 for 6 at lunch, all that remained was a face-saving tonk from the tail.
With 18 wickets in the series to date, Anderson has cemented his place as the No. 2 bowler in the world Test rankings - behind South Africa's Dale Steyn for the moment, but unquestionably the first pick in a pack of English fast bowlers that has propelled their team to the summit. Anderson and his acolytes may lack the sheer terror of the West Indian quartet of the 1980s, but the totality of their methods is cut from the same cloth. Relentless, suffocating pressure is their modus operandi, and the fact that Anderson - who once answered to the unflattering nickname "Daisy" ["some days he ..."] - is central to that approach speaks volumes of the distance he has come.
"He's been an integral part of our development as a side," Andrew Strauss said at the end of the Edgbaston Test. "We've all seen his onfield exploits with the swinging ball, and even when it hasn't swung, he's become a very effective campaigner. He's not an out-and-out quick bowler now, but he's very smart in what he does, and also, off the pitch, he's become an increasingly important part of the working of our side, the way he interacts with other bowlers, the example he sets, and he's really matured as a person.
"We're hopeful his best years are still ahead of him, but we're obviously delighted with what he's achieved in the last couple of years."
At the age of 29, Anderson is finally achieving the status that seemed preordained when he was plucked from league cricket in Burnley as a 20-year-old, and sent to reinforce England's ailing one-day squad in Australia in the aftermath of the 2002-03 Ashes. His achievements on that trip included a spell of ten overs for 12 in a one-dayer in Adelaide that led, in turn, to his call-up for the World Cup, where four wickets under the lights at Cape Town provided England with their one true highlight of the tournament - a memorable win against Pakistan.
Five wickets on Test debut soon followed against Zimbabwe, as well as another starring role against Pakistan, a one-day hat-trick at The Oval. But Anderson's premature stardom torched his credentials almost before they'd been established. A red "go-faster" stripe through his hair attracted the sort of media attention that no young sportsmen needs to bring upon themselves, but more worrying for the management was his sheer unreliability. The knowledge of what he was capable mitigated the days when his radar would go awry, but only up to a point, and after his first 12 Tests, his average and run-rate (36.40 and 3.75) both had him labelled as a liability.
Even at this senior stage of his career, with Alec Bedser now among the English legends whom his wickets-tally of 237 has eclipsed, Anderson hasn't quite been able to write off those shortcomings of his youth. His average, for instance, still hasn't managed to dip below 30, but the font of experience that he is able to bring to the equation is invaluable. No-one else in the squad - not even the captain, Andrew Strauss, whose debut came a year later in 2004, and whose career trajectory has suffered just a solitary blip in the winter of 2007-08 - knows half as much about international failure, and consequently, what it really takes to succeed.
Success for Anderson was deferred until the end of Fletcher's reign. In the interim he suffered the ignominy of being overlooked throughout that epic summer of 2005 - Chris Tremlett was England's designated 12th man for the first four Tests, while Paul Collingwood's solid character was trusted ahead of Anderson's flair for the crucial decider at The Oval. Meanwhile, his performances overseas made him out to be the little lost boy of the world game. In his first eight Test tours, he was selected for seven matches, but would invariably appear to bowl at a single stump during lunch breaks, honing his technique for the day that would never come.
All the while, something strange was happening to Anderson's action. Troy Cooley's success with the likes of Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff was legendary, but his attempts to iron out Anderson's habit of peering into his left armpit at the point of delivery proved disastrous. The meddling robbed an instinctive cricketer of the natural swing that had earned him England recognition in the first place, while transferring new stresses onto previously ungrooved parts of his body. His back duly gave way in May 2006; an injury that wrote off his season but at least gave him the excuse to dispense with the tinkering. By the following summer, with Fletcher coincidentally now out of the picture, he was at last ready to be his own man.
Peter Moores' reign as England coach proved to be short and bitter, but aside from calling in Graeme Swann and Ryan Sidebottom from the cold, his one lasting triumph was the manner in which he turned Anderson into the attack leader for a new generation. He showed glimpses of what lay in store during the 2007 home series against India, when his seven wickets at Lord's all but wrapped up a rain-saved match, but his true second coming was at Wellington in March 2008.
One game earlier, while Harmison and Hoggard had been bowling their way out of the team during an abject display at Hamilton, Anderson had been released from the squad to go and play for Auckland - a controversial arrangement, but one that was infinitely preferable to yet another round of single-stump practice in the lunch breaks. He responded to the fine-tuning with a crucial five-wicket haul in a series-turning display, and from that moment on, he has scarcely looked back. His last 42 Tests have reaped 175 wickets at 27.45 and an economy rate of 3.04.
"I want to be the bowler that the captain can throw the ball to when we need a wicket," Anderson stated after that Wellington performance, and sure enough that's exactly what he has become. Even so, the final aspect of his development has required a certain degree of regression, because it has been the solidity of his stock performances rather than the dynamism of his breakthrough moments that have defined his role in the second half of his career.
In short, he has given up trying to bowl the "magic ball" - the sort of jaw-dropping jaffa that Yousuf Youhana received at Cape Town in 2003, or Aaron Redmond at Trent Bridge in 2008. Under the tutelage of David Saker, a bowling coach who cares more about tactics and mindset than technique, Anderson has resolved never to offer up anything that can be cut, which means beating a tattoo on a good length on and outside off, and conforming to an orthodoxy that is far removed from his maverick beginnings.
His methods have been too subtle for a host of recent opponents, from Pakistan last summer via Australia in the winter, where, on Saker's watch, a new "wobbly seam" delivery gave him a weapon that enabled him to transcend the vagaries of the Kookaburra ball and transform his own reputation in unresponsive conditions. The truest challenge for Anderson's methods now lies in the subcontinent this coming winter, where Pakistan and Sri Lanka will be expecting to thwart England's formidable momentum. But like the team that he has helped to haul from mediocrity to the top of the tree, he's ready for the challenge. Anderson knows the taste of failure, and he wants nothing more to do with it.
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