England v India, 5th Investec Test, The Oval August 14, 2014

Great servant Anderson digs deep for England

As James Anderson approaches the landmark of England's leading Test wicket-taker, he was hailed by his captain as "the most skilful bowler in the world"

Play 01:31
Dobell: Broad and Anderson asked for one last push

England will ask for one final push from their two most experienced bowlers in the final Test of the Investec series at The Oval.

For all the talk of the new era, it is still James Anderson and Stuart Broad upon whom England most rely in the field. The pair have shared 37 wickets at a cost of 22.59 each in the series to date and taken three of the four Man-of-the-Match awards. The other seamers - Liam Plunkett, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan - have by contrast taken 18 between them at a cost of 47.61 each.

Both Broad and Anderson could easily have missed this game. Not only is the demand of five Tests in 42 days unreasonable upon such valuable players but Broad has a broken nose - he may wear a protective face mask in this game - and he is scheduled to undergo knee surgery once the series is over. The strain of leading the attack in all three formats may not show on the pitch where, Lord's apart, Broad has been exemplary for many months but it is beginning to show on the body.

Had the ICC disciplinary hearing gone against him, Anderson, too, might have missed this match. As it is, he goes into his 99th Test requiring seven wickets to draw level with Ian Botham's England record of 383 dismissals in Test cricket. Now aged 32, his longevity, consistency and skills are in some danger of being undervalued by familiarity. It may be when he retires that England realise his full value.

There were some raised eyebrows at the pre-match press conference when Alastair Cook hailed Anderson as "the most skilful bowler in the world", but it is not an unreasonable statement. Not with the caveat "seamer" anyway. Cook did not say "the best" or the "most valuable". And Anderson's ability to swing the bowl both ways, conventionally and using reverse, renders him dangerous in conditions in which others struggle.

Many other right-arm seamers can bowl outswing. Some of them can persuade the odd one to shape back in a fraction, too. But few can hoop it both ways as Anderson does with old ball and new. Not Dale Steyn, not Vernon Philander. Bhuvneshwar Kumar can do it, but not at the pace of Anderson. In the absence of Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif, Cook's praise is not so far wide of the mark.

Anderson's average is relatively modest. It hovers, at present, a fraction below 30: decent, certainly, but not in the league of the greats. Perhaps greatness will prove a bridge too far. He has been a fine, fine bowler for England but he is not Wasim Akram or Richard Hadlee. He is not Malcolm Marshall or Dennis Lillee.

But, like Hadlee, he has sometimes had to shoulder more than his share of the burden. There have been times, too many times, when his captains have had nowhere else to turn and felt obliged to ask Anderson to stretch his spells by another over or two; to ask for one more spell before stumps.

It was Anderson who MS Dhoni described as the difference between the teams when England won in India. It was Anderson who produced the crucial spell to win the 2013 Trent Bridge Test against Australia. It was Anderson who claimed the most wickets when England won the 2010-2011 Ashes in Australia and Anderson, along with Broad, who led the way when England went to No. 1 in the Test rankings with victory over India in 2011. He has been at the heart of much that has been good about England in recent years.

But he has also been at the centre of much that has been less good. There was a moment in Australia that summed up the burden that Anderson shoulders in this side. With Broad off the field injured, Graeme Swann hit out of the attack and clearly struggling with the shoulder injury that forced him into retirement a few days later, Anderson was forced into another second-innings spell on a baking Perth afternoon against an Australia batting line-up already overwhelmingly on top.

Few remember that Anderson had been immaculate in the first innings. Few remember that England's batsmen had, yet again, let down their bowlers and forced them back into the field too soon. Few will remember that Broad was in the pavilion and that Cook had nowhere else to turn.

"He bowls quickly now but swings it both ways and it's very hard to pick up ... The reason he's a world-class bowler is he can do that. His skill levels have gone through the roof"
Alastair Cook on James Anderson

Instead they will remember George Bailey thrashing Anderson for 28 in an over. Symbolically, the sight of England's strike bowler being thrashed into the stands was one of the lowest moments of a grim tour. It was probably the moment it became impossible to deny that Australia's dominance was complete.

He should not have been bowling. To use him in such circumstances, with a declaration imminent, was akin to using a sports car to deliver scaffolding. It was brutal use of a fine tool but it summed up England's over-reliance upon Anderson and his willingness to go the extra mile for his team. It is not surprising that Cook's support for him remains unquestioning.

This makes it all the more regrettable that Anderson feels - or felt - the need to chunter and abuse his way through spells. He doesn't need to stoop to such strategies. He is better than that.

Even Cook admits that, on first impression when the pair came face to face in a County Championship match as young men, that he took an instant dislike to Anderson. "He called me everything under the sun when I was batting," Cook said. "Then I went on an England A tour with him and we never spoke.

"We were called up to play for England together and we had to fly from Antigua to India and we were sitting together on the plane. The only words he had said to me before then were swear words and I was thinking: This is going to be an interesting 48 hours...

"Now we're really good friends. What amazes me is how he keeps trying to improve his bowling. I've faced a hell of a lot of his net bowling and you can always see he's trying to work on something, which is a great attitude.

"When I first played against him he bowled quickly and swung it into me. He is a very different bowler now. He bowls quickly now but swings it both ways and it's very hard to pick up. When I played Lancashire about three years ago, I was lining him up okay and then he came around the wicket and got me out third ball. No matter how many times you face him in the nets, the reason he's a world-class bowler is he can do that. His skill levels have gone through the roof."

So Anderson may not be remembered as a great. And there may be moments in retirement when he looks back on some of his behaviour and winces. But perfection is not really a human quality and Anderson can take pride in the knowledge that he is respected by his team and feared by the opposition. He has served his country with distinction and he has never, on the hottest days or on the flattest pitches, ever given less than his best or let his captain down. By most interpretations, that is a great career.

Anderson and Broad may well face another hard slog at The Oval. The days when this ground offered the quickest pitches in the country have, for now at least, gone so England will once again be reliant on the pair's skill, their persistence and their determination if they are to wrap up their first Test series win for a year.

Whatever happens in the next few days, England have a long journey ahead of them. Victory in the Investec series against an apparently dispirited and not entirely engaged India will not prove Sam Robson a Test-quality opener, or Woakes and Jordan Test-quality seamers. It will not prove Cook or Ian Bell have found the consistency they require or that the emerging batsmen have what it takes to defeat Mitchell Johnson et al in an Ashes series.

But, after a grim six months, victory would provide encouragement that they are at least heading in the right direction. That will do for now.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments