Unpredictable Anderson finds his birthday best
The second day at Trent Bridge was James Anderson's 28th birthday, and it began for him in a somewhat lugubrious fashion. Before the start of play he was serenaded by his tuneless team-mates and presented with a cupcake by two of the press photographers, a pair of gestures that left him more bemused than touched. His mood had not improved by the time Mohammad Asif pinned him lbw for a first-ball duck - his second in four home Tests and, after a memorable run of 54 duckless innings from his debut in 2003, his third blob in the space of 11 months.
By the end of another breathless chapter of a compelling contest, however, Anderson's mood had been restored to a level more befitting a birthday boy. "The day didn't start out great, but a few wickets at the end made up for it, and we finished on a happy note," he said with his habitual solemnity. "Yesterday it swung and the pitch did help, and we knew if we were patient enough we'd get some nicks. So we tried to be as patient as possible, keep the runs down, and it paid off for us."
Anderson's deadpan delivery when addressing the media is unrecognisable from the jive-talking wisecracking he produces with the ball. With wicked late movement from a taxing full length, his mercurial brand of banana-ey seam and swing presented a challenge every bit as eyecatching as that of Asif and Mohammad Aamer, two players whose merits have earned them comparisons with some of the greatest players in the game - Aamer, for his part, enhanced his status as the new Wasim Akram with an innings of 25 that put his top-order to shame, while Asif is now one wicket shy of his century, and assuming England have to bat again, he will surely emulate the great Waqar Younis by reaching that milestone in his 20th Test.
Alas, Anderson, with the best will in the world, can never hope to attract such lofty adulation. "In the right conditions there's no better bowler in world cricket," said Andrew Strauss on the eve of the game - a comment that sounded, at the time, like condemnation with less-than-fulsome praise. Too many lackadaisical performances have drifted by in the course of his seven-year career for his excellence ever to be accepted as standard. But that doesn't mean he's not a sight to behold on those days, such as today, when everything clicks.
Pakistan's captain, Salman Butt, was certainly impressed. He and his team-mates had, for the most part, negotiated Australia's frontline seamers with minimum fuss in their preceding two Tests, only to crumble to the second-string offerings of Shane Watson and Marcus North. But right from the start of Anderson's devastating 20-over spell, he and his team-mates knew that the challenge had been ramped up several notches. In these conditions, he said, there was no contest between the Ashes attacks.
"Anderson was a different bowler," said Butt, the first of his five victims. "He stood out for England today. Mohammad Asif can bowl like Glenn McGrath, but not many bowlers in the world bowl both [in- and out-] swing with that much control, and at the same pace. I've seen at first hand that he was bowling with such control and I think it was an outstanding bowling performance."
Anderson, inevitably, had a far more modest appraisal. "I didn't think it swung as much as yesterday, which I think helped to get the edge more today, and all of us made best use of the conditions," he said. "There's a lot of pressure for our spots, with a big squad of players, so we've just got to keep putting in good performances."
Attaining that consistency, of course, has been the problem all throughout Anderson's career. This was his ninth five-wicket haul in 49 Tests, a return that, in isolation, keeps him in touch with some significant speedsters of the past - the mighty Waqar, for instance, managed 22 in 87. But Waqar rarely went missing for days on end, as Anderson did around the time of his 27th birthday last summer, when he followed up an Ashes five-for at Edgbaston with blank returns in the series finales at Headingley and The Oval.
More recently, he's been down in the dumps for different reasons. His omission from the triumphant World Twenty20 campaign led to a rare burst of indignation, as he vented his fury at the slight while openly questioning his value as a key member of the team. His performances in the recent one-dayers were indicative of that morose mindset, as he was clattered for an average 70 runs a match in four out of five games against Australia and Bangladesh - while inevitably chipping in with a brilliant 3 for 22 in between whiles.
That particular performance took place at his home ground of Old Trafford, and Trent Bridge is another venue where his demeanour visibly relaxes. The last time England played a Test here was against New Zealand in 2008, when Anderson proved unplayable in a career-best 7 for 43.
"Certain grounds do seem to swing every time, and Trent Bridge has been good to me the last couple of times I've been here," he admitted. "I felt like I've been bowling pretty well, but just not getting the wickets that you think you deserve. But hopefully now towards the end of the season, I can give it a big push in this series and keep taking some."
Anderson's confidence will remain an inevitable talking point with England's Ashes campaign looming large, especially because he cannot expect the sort of assistance Down Under that was on offer in this game. But with Steven Finn's immaculate discipline and high-kicking bounce causing another swathe of problems to an opposition unused to such an awkward line of attack, his presence as a point of difference could yet be crucial. Especially on those days when he simply gets it right.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.