Anderson swings into eminence
Match by match, session by session, James Anderson is shedding his diffidence and emerging as a serious contender. His shaky start in Cardiff is rapidly fading from memory, and instead keynote contributions in the first innings of consecutive Tests - 4 for 55 at Lord's, and now 5 for 80 at Edgbaston - have launched him to the top of the series wicket-taking charts, and confirmed the suspicion that he could yet be the man who separates the sides in the final analysis.
At Lord's, Anderson's first-innings haul was arguably the decisive contribution of the match, more so even than Andrew Flintoff's stable-door slamming on the final morning, dramatic and emphatic though that effort proved to be. The most remarkable aspect of that match, after all, was not that Australia floundered in pursuit of 522, but that they were so comprehensively outplayed in the first half of the game. The match was won and lost on the second day when they slumped to 156 for 8, having posted a massive 674 for 6 only six days earlier in Cardiff.
And the secret of England's success on both occasions (and the reason for their failure at Cardiff) was lateral movement, or lack thereof. "I think we bowled consistently well with a swinging ball today, and if the ball is swinging and you bowl well, most teams in the world are going to have to bat very well to cope with it," Anderson said. "I know exactly what I want to do with the ball, and though it doesn't always go where you want, I'm fairly confident, especially when it's swinging like today, which way it's going to go and what I'm trying to do with it, and that's coming off at the moment."
On Thursday evening, in a brief but ill-directed first foray, England failed to locate a length to trouble Australia's batsmen, and gifted them a flying start of 126 for 1. Today, the team took their cue from the exemplary Graham Onions, whose two wickets in two balls set the agenda superbly, leaving Anderson to show how irresistible his assets can be when everything clicks. Like the girl with the curl from the nursery rhyme, who veered from very, very good to horrid in the space of two verses, Anderson's mood swings are unpredictable as his inswing. But he's maturing with every match, and by claiming his first five-wicket haul against Australia, he confirmed in his own mind just how far his development has progressed.
"They are No. 1 in the world," Anderson said, "so to perform against the best team in the world is a good way to see where you're at. I know I've been bowling well, and a good ball is going to get a good batsman out in any form of cricket, but consistency is a problem I've always had. We had that as a unit yesterday as well, but it's something we corrected today, and getting wickets against this top team is making me think I'm a decent bowler."
If Anderson was being honest with himself, and he deserves to on current form, he has been a decent bowler for a long while now. Year Zero of his Test career deserved to be traced back to March 13, 2008, when - having been familiarly overlooked for the opening match of England's tour of New Zealand - he was recalled for the second Test in Wellington in one of the team's most momentous selectorial heists of recent times. The stalwarts, Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard, were jettisoned after a limp display in a humiliating defeat, and Anderson's response was a first-innings haul of 5 for 73 that looked, at times, unplayable.
Admittedly, breaching the defences of Matthew Bell and Mathew Sinclair is not the most taxing prospect for a swing bowler of his calibre, but nevertheless, Anderson's pre- and post-Wellington statistics confirm the impression that he is finally finding comfort in his own skin. Anderson has played 20 Tests in the 16 months since that recall, which is exactly the same number that he had previously been permitted in the five years since his debut in 2003. His Test figures going into Wellington were an indifferent 62 wickets at 39.20; since then, he's managed 77 at 29.10, including four of his seven five-wicket hauls.
The latest is undoubtedly the most prized. It famously took Graham Gooch a full decade to register his first Ashes century, at The Oval in 1985, having bagged a pair right here at Edgbaston ten years earlier, and with the odd hiatus, he didn't fare too badly thereafter. Likewise, by picking up his first five-wicket haul against the Old Enemy, six-and-a-half years after his first involvement in Anglo-Australian cricket, Anderson has the opportunity to erase his awkward past and stride forward with confidence into the prime of his athletic lifespan.
Nevertheless, even when you're bending the ball as prodigiously as Anderson managed today, it doesn't hurt to be reminded to keep things straight and simple. In that respect, Andrew Strauss's decision to hand the opening over of the day to Onions was not merely a masterstroke in hindsight. Though Anderson's stunning mid-innings spell of 4 for 4 in 14 balls derailed Australia to dramatic effect, he had already waited a full 15 overs to make that first breakthrough, as he swung the ball first this way, then that, but forgot to concentrate on hitting the right line and length.
Onions, on the other hand, bustled in from close to the stumps, pitched it full and let his length ask the questions that had been left hanging in the air the previous evening. "It was a good decision," said Anderson, who denied he was put out by the perceived snub. "Graham likes to bowl long spells, it's what he does for Durham because it gets him into a good rhythm, and giving him the first over gave him a good chance to do that. The big thing this morning was setting the tone, and that first over was very special."
In 2005, England's ability to dominate Australia stemmed once again from the lateral movement they extracted from the conditions, but on that occasion, reverse swing was all the rage. This time, Anderson confirmed, it was nothing but conventional swing on offer, but it was every bit as effective. "I think the amount of rain we've had has probably taken reverse swing out of the equation, certainly for this game," he said. "The fact that we've got a dampish outfield is going to keep the ball quite damp and moist, and make it swing more."
By the close, England had capitalised on the efforts of their seamers, with Andrew Strauss leading once again from the front, and only rain seems likely to deny them a chance to push on. "Obviously we're in a very good position, but we've got to kick on with the bat, and bat really well," said Anderson. "With three days left, we've got to look to bat for a good part of two of those. If we can bat well and bat once, we've got a great chance in this match."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo