Lessons in life
James Anderson was the man to breathe life into English cricket until he ran out of steam against South Africa. Emma John finds out how he dealt with sudden celebrity status
Sitting in the Trent Bridge pavilion two days before the third Test Anderson has just returned to the England set-up from Lancashire's last-over C&G semi-final defeat against Worcestershire. His appearance is as hale and hearty as ever but there is an exaggerated languor in his voice. He passes his hands over his face, rubs his eyes and the back of his neck. He looks tired. "I'm very, very tired," he says.
After the travel-play-travel of the NatWest Series Anderson had hoped for a week's R&R but media obligations made it impossible. He wanted to find somewhere to live next season but there was no time to house-hunt and his parents had to choose somewhere for him. There has been scarcely time for an evening out. End-of-Test shebangs were curtailed affairs - "When you've lost, you don't really want to stick around" - and Anderson's own performances had fallen far short of those expected of him. It is no surprise he looks weary. He perks up only on mention of Glen Chapple, the surprise squad selection for that Trent Bridge Test. It is, he says with sudden energy, great to have him around. "I remember growing up watching Lancashire and wondering why he wasn't in the England team then."
Rewind 12 months and opening the Lancashire bowling with Chapple was achievement enough for Anderson. He had still not come to terms with the fact that Peter Martin, the hero of his teens, was now polishing the ball for him. "He was the one guy that I really looked up to," Anderson says. He talks of meeting him for the first time at a net session and sighs. "One of the Lancashire coaches said just listen to what he's got to say. I didn't know what to expect but he chatted with me as if I was a normal person. Now he texts me all the time saying well done. Weird."
The weirdness went on. He was chosen for the England Academy after only one county season but was called up to the England one-day squad the night before the Academy's first fixture. "It was only when I started packing that it sunk in. I was rooming with Gordon Muchall from Durham and he asked me what I was doing because I'd only just unpacked. I said: `I'm joining the England squad.' He didn't believe me. He started laughing and told me to put my stuff back."
There followed an England debut (and getting beaten by Australia) and the World Cup (and getting beaten by Australia). He was asked to bowl the penultimate over of the nail-biting group match against Australia at Port Elizabeth ahead of Andy Caddick. It went for 12 runs. "It was probably the worst feeling I've ever had on a cricket field. Having fielded in front of the Barmy Army for most of the game, looking like we were going to win, then getting hit for 10 in two balls - which virtually won them the game - was horrible. Horrible." Hot-footing it from the ground was a tempting option. "I really wanted to. But Nasser spoke to me after the game and he said stuff that was just perfect, just what I needed. I think if he hadn't spoken to me I'd have maybe not come back the way I did this summer. That would have still been in the back of my mind."
Instead he took a five-for on Test debut against Zimbabwe and contributed star turns in England's one-day tournaments. His hair - which had changed from blond highlights to a streak of red - became the talk of the tabloids. He was invited to the British Grand Prix to meet Michael Schumacher and, when he declined because of a pre-arranged birthday barbecue in his parents' garden, Ferrari sent a helicopter to fly him to and from the race. No wonder his team-mates were giving him stick. We met for the first time the day before the NatWest Series final against South Africa. He said: "The boys say I `can't do anything wrong'. Which isn't true. It's weird because I know that it's not going to go on forever and that I'm going to go through a bad patch. But at the minute I just don't want it to end."
The honeymoon period ended not with a whimper but a bang. He had the limelight snatched roughly from his grasp by Graeme Smith at Edgbaston. Until then even Anderson's expensive first overs - his trademark flaw - had had a perverse charm, since he rarely failed to make up for them with wickets. But the Test series against South Africa held few magical moments for him. His inexperience was brutally exposed, not only by the batsmen but also C4's analysts, whose graphics showed just how few of his deliveries were landing in the same spot. Michael Vaughan admitted before The Oval Test that Anderson would have been rested had injuries to others not prevented it.
Anderson, however, says he was happy with the way he was bowling. "When you don't take wickets people think you bowled badly but I had a dropped catch off Smith on eight [at Lord's]. If you know you're bowling well then you've just got to keep waiting till the luck is on your side." He also refuses to blame nerves. "It's lack of concentration. It takes me a while to get into the game, which it shouldn't do. It's one of the things I'm having to learn." So is following the match: "I go to third man and just drift off."
He responds to fair criticism with a maturity and a self-possession that critics have either ignored or simply not noticed.
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The David Beckham comparisons, for instance, were flattering but beside the point. "I don't want to be remembered as the David Beckham of cricket, I don't want to be the next Darren Gough, I just want to be known as ..." (he lowers his voice till it is scarcely audible) "... James Anderson." One reason that Anderson - an Arsenal fan since he rejected the family homage to Burnley FC aged six because he preferred the red strip - changed his hair colour was that people thought he was emulating Beckham. Nor was the red streak a homage to Arsenal's Freddie Ljungberg: "I just fancied a change. I didn't do it because he had it." Anderson does not wear trendy clothes to court publicity. He wears them because he likes them. When traditionalists like John Woodcock call him a "peacock", they may assume that his bold appearance is a substitute for inner substance. They are wrong.
At Burnley Cricket Club, on the fourth day of the Lord's Test, the car park and driveways are full. Two weeks earlier 200 people came through the gate to watch Anderson captain his club side in a friendly, score a half-century and bowl a couple of overs of off-spin. Today, however, the cars are the usual overflow from Burnley FC's Sunday fixture. The numbers in the pavilion swell halfway through Burnley's innings as the football match finishes and spectators move from one ground to the other, sharing the scoreline and descriptions of each goal.
Only a year and a bit ago Anderson was playing this same fixture against Rishton CC. He bowled Rishton's pro Paul Adams before the rain swept in and ruined the match. Little could he or his team-mates know that within 13 months Anderson would again be bowling at Adams but watched by a couple more million people. Peter Holden, the Burnley scorer, certainly never thought such an achievement was possible when he was coaching the 14-year-old Anderson. "I'll be completely honest, I've seen a lot of amateur cricket and I didn't think James was any better than a lot of the lads we have," he says. "But then when he was about 16 he put on a few inches in height and suddenly gained a yard of pace."
Anderson himself can offer no other explanation for the fact that, at 17, he found himself one of the quickest bowlers in the Lancashire league and picked for the Lancashire schools side. For the first time his childhood ambition to be a cricketer seemed a genuine possibility. A contract with Lancashire a year later forestalled any dilemmas about university or gap years. His talent was incubated in the Lancashire 2nd XI. For the darling of the ECB's slimline system of excellence it is a surprisingly old-fashioned route.
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The older members of the club say he is shy. "If you try to engage him in a conversation, he'll give you one word answers," says one. But his peers know better. "When people first meet him they think he's shy," says Gareth, one of his closest mates. "But if you've known him for 10 years like we have you know he's a bit of a loony."
An up-and-down summer did not scar Anderson's popularity nor the long-term assessment of his talent. Seven wickets at Trent Bridge were enough to keep people in mind of what he can do and the reception he receives from England crowds indicates public support. There is support, too, from his captain. "We have to remember this is his first loss of form," says Michael Vaughan. "He has never gone through a loss of form for Lancashire. It is a lot harder for him but he will be a stronger guy for it." At the end of August he was voted the Cricket Writers' Club Young Cricketer of the Year by an unprecedented unanimous vote. He received the award at a London dinner from the afore-mentioned Woodcock but by now the red streak was black (although he was threatening the return of the blond highlights). The red had gone partly because it had been unlucky for him and partly because he did not want to look like a footballer. His curious bowling action - he appears not to be looking where he is bowling the ball - also generates plenty of discussion; Bob Willis told viewers that Anderson can last only five years with his current action. "I'd not heard that," he laughs. "Nah, I'm not worried. I'm working on stuff all the time actually, and our bowling coach [Troy Cooley] is big on biomechanics, so if I am going to get injuries he'll tell me about it." He says his pace comes from keeping his head down. "I've tried bowling with my head up all the way and it just floats out." What about looking where he is bowling? "My eyes are shut when I deliver the ball anyway."
Not even at his lowest point for England did he want to get away, to return to county cricket for some extra schooling. "When all you've wanted to do is play for England, when you get there you don't want to do anything else." If anything, his problems have stemmed from trying too hard. "Some days it's not so good and you just get angry and try and bowl faster and faster and you lose it." With luck he has not lost anything so much as temporarily misplaced it.
The October 2003 edition of The Wisden Cricketer is on sale at all good newsagents in the UK and Ireland, priced £3.25.