England v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Headingley, 3rd day May 21, 2016

Artful Anderson paints a Headingley masterpiece at last

James Anderson's status as a great fast bowler may be a matter for endless debate, but there's no question of the beauty of his very best performances
14

Play 02:29
'Great to see Jimmy back in the wickets' - Cook

Bowlers fight for everything they get. At first they have to fight the odds that they will make it to the top level. Then they have to fight to get a professional game at all. Then a game for their country. Then they fight the batsmen that is trying to end their spell, their day, their Test, their career. But you get that first wicket if you are lucky, or that 50th. A few even get 100, or 300, or, even for those at the top of the game, their 400th. It doesn't stop there.

It isn't just the batsmen - it's the media, injuries, bad coaches, terrible administration, silly selections, unhelpful groundsmen, your team-mates, that next bright young thing. That is all in your way, in your head, trying to stop you from becoming the best you can be. To be what you have always wanted to be.

Great.

But the best just keep going. They bowl until their body, or minds, can't bowl anymore. They bowl with injury, with pain, through break-ups, through tragedies, through poor form, through personal issues, on roads and highways, against ever-increasing bats and batsmen, in a sport that seems to have been invented just to remind them they are second-class citizens.

After all that, the ones who make it, who survive, who thrive, then have to beat the villainy that is our group-fan subjective mind. We can't just enjoy them, we have to work out how good they are, where they fit. Sure, he is good, and he's done this for ten years, and bowled more balls and taken more wickets than anyone in his country before him. But is he a great? An all-time great? One of the best of all time?

While we do this, he creates something special.

Jimmy Anderson has bowled cricket balls that tattoo themselves on your memory. That Anderson curve is something you will always know. It is part of your experience as a cricket fan. You may not like him, you may think he isn't as good as others, is an over-rated presence in cricket because of his Big Three pedigree, or that his average (currently 28.62, his lowest mark since 2003) just isn't good enough for you to consider him to be a great. But that curve, you like that. Everyone likes it, unless they are playing against it, or hoping their team can survive it.

Can he do it all the time, on all surfaces, against all batsmen, in all countries? No, but when he does it, that doesn't make it any less amazing. Swing bowling is art, and Jimmy paints.

James Anderson was too much for Dasun Shanaka to handle in both innings © Getty Images

Forget the grumpiness, forget the English media pushing him, forget the fact he can never be Dale Steyn (and nor can most other players), and just watch that swing. That ball is making shapes that HR Giger or Zaha Hadid would kill for. His bowling trajectories should be hanging in some modern art museum or spray-painted on walls. At his most dramatic, the ball has a mind, and mood, of its own. At his most skilful he has it on a string and points it in one direction before telling it to go another.

It is beautiful.

At Headingley, you would expect even more than that. But it's not how it has gone for him before.

Headingley swings. It swings more than a hot brass band playing at a swingers' party. If you are a swing bowler, it is the place you dream of taking the new ball, the place you get the new ball, and usually the place to destroy with the new ball. Over the last few years, the great, good and ordinary of world cricket have all done well here. People who ended up in jail, people who had lost their nip and people who were practically unknown, have all done well, and far better than Anderson.

Worse than that, two years ago it was the pitch that made him cry, when he failed to last the distance with the bat.

He hated Headingley. "Hated it". Not the words of a tabloid hack slamming his keyboard in ambitious glee but the words of the greatest wicket-taker England have ever had, about the swing-bowling paradise that was all but designed in wait for his presence.

Finally, after nine years of his hate, it happened. That curve, and the wickets that followed. That ball to Dasun Shanaka, that seemed to follow an exponential swing graph. Others were so hypnotising that the bats seemed naturally drawn to them, despite the fact it would surely end in death. Batsmen missed straight ones while still worrying about the squiggly line ones they had missed moments earlier.

The Sri Lankan batsmen became so faceless during this onslaught that the scoreboard started putting up pictures of the wrong players. Their role, which they played to perfection, was to edge the ball, miss the ball, and participate in the Jimmy Anderson hat-trick of wicket maidens.

At the end of this game there were no tears, just a small smile.

You can, and will, argue about whether he is great or not. You can say he was in his home conditions, against (as Colin Graves might accidentally call them) a "mediocre" batting line-up, but when the ball came out of his hand in this match, it was a tremendous thing to watch.

This Test won't change anyone's mind as to whether he is an all-time great or not. This Test was just Anderson bowling at somewhere near his best - and whatever your opinion of his status - it was pretty damn good. Not for the first time in his career, and hopefully not for the last.

Greatness is subjective. Art is subjective. Ten for 45 is objective, and in this match, it produced great art.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • yorkiebar15 on May 23, 2016, 10:31 GMT

    Think about it JK, even an unknown young kid in his first Test, who has never seen Headingley before, took full advantage of the (Anderson) conditions to very swiftly remove three of England's Golden Boys for big, fat ducks and one measly run in about ten minutes! So please keep JA's performance in perspective. He's a terrific bowler but give others due recognition too.

  • yorkiebar15 on May 22, 2016, 20:49 GMT

    LANDL47 probably summed it up best. Cometh the hour, cometh the man or, to paraphrase, cometh the conditions... etc. This kind of performance happens regularly around the world in top class sport. Given those conditions I reckon even a top quality Bradford League or Lancashire League bowler could have seen off the poor SL batting line-up just about as easily as JA. Don't over-egg it Jarrod, it was an excellent performance but it doesn't make him another Glenn McGrath. The real outstanding performance was of course the MotM, Bairstow whom you forgot to mention. Had he gone for a low score who knows what encouragement it would have given SL? The tenor of the match might well have changed, giving JA a somewhat harder task, though there is no doubt that they were never going to offer a serious challenge to get even close. Even JA is unlikely to repeat the performance if he gets very conditions in the remaining summer Tests. I'm looking forward to some good, but not especially great cricket

  • Wolfie73 on May 22, 2016, 15:33 GMT

    One of the greatest joys in cricket is a a ball changing direction at the behest of athe bowler and deceiving a batsman, whether is is a hard spun leg break or a carving outswinger. Great swing bowling like Anderson has bowled this match is, to me as a spectacle comparable to top class spin. Certainly without the right conditions he couldn't have done it, but that makes what he does possible, not a given. No one else did so, and at the moment I'm not sure anyone else could.

  • liz1558 on May 22, 2016, 15:22 GMT

    @JOHN_BNSA - So you are absolutely convinced that Pakistan will bring Amir?

  • Colombo_International on May 22, 2016, 13:24 GMT

    Jimmy is a great bowler in these in conditions and turned out to be a very good bowler any where else in the world lately in his career. but imo this performance should not be used to measure greatness of him or any other bowler, because the current Sri Lankan batting lineup is weaker than most of the batting lineups in ongoing county championship. All the batsman in Sri Lankan batting lineup are form the capital Colombo district and have played for leading colleges there. Though Colombo has produced some marvelous batsman over the years ( Roy Dias in 80s, Aravinda de silva in 90s, Mahela J in 2000s and Mathews in the current team,) it doesn't have the capacity to produce a decent test batting lineup (top 6 batters from the same city). So the current batting lineup of Sri Lanka is not more than first class batting unit it with one or two very good players.

  • PrasPunter on May 22, 2016, 10:59 GMT

    Well, nice to get back to red-ball cricket , isn't it ??

    When the conditions suit him the best, Jimmy Anderson is one of the finest practitioners of swing bowling. Having said that, he did well against us in 2010/11 and india in 2012 where the conditions didn't suit his kind of bowling much. So he has had a bit of success on flatter conditions as well. A very very good bowler, in my opinion. But that's just mine.

    @SamRoy, for the thought about magic, may not be sure about Brian Lara, again just my view, but I concur about Warney and Akram. Never seen the art of wrist spin and swing bowling been given the kind of dimension these blokes gave !! Would pay to watch them do their job on the field all day !!

  • SamRoy on May 22, 2016, 9:45 GMT

    When it comes to swing bowling, Wasim Akram played on Pakistani wickets which offer even less than Indian wickets (considered by many as the flattest). And he had to contend with the world's worst slip catchers who dropped more than they caught. And yet he averaged 23 (compared to Anderson's 28-29) with the ball and bowled an unplayable delivery almost every over. Akram swung the new ball both ways (like Anderson) and the old ball both ways (like Anderson) only a yard or two quicker than Anderson and with a very quick arm action which made the ball appear even quicker. I have seen magic only in 3 cricketers (and I understand my view is subjective) in last 25 years. Brian Lara, Shane Warne and Wasim Akram. Though greatness is subjective Akram's bowling looked like a "Mid Summer's Night Dream".

  • landl47 on May 22, 2016, 4:44 GMT

    Whether a player is great is not a simple 'yes or no'. A lot depends on the side they play with and the conditions in which they play. For example, if every wicket was a sticky dog (a wet wicket exposed to the sun), the best bowler in the history of the game would have been Derek Underwood. Once wickets were covered in the late 1960s he went from being devastating to merely extremely good.

    Anderson needs some swing or seam to be at his best. Perhaps, because of that, he might not be great all the time. However, in this game he was great. Ask the Sri Lankan batsmen.

  • bigdhonifan on May 22, 2016, 4:25 GMT

    Just 163 overs and match ended in 2 days. English can only with doctored pitches.