March 11, 2013

The Anderson report

Jo Harman
England's spearhead looks back at his ten years in international cricket

From nervy beginnings and false dawns to Ashes hauls and superstardom, James Anderson's extraordinary career has taken on various guises. Now all that's left to reveal is the extent of his greatness. Is he merely the best English bowler of his time, or even more than that? In a wide-ranging interview, he talks Jo Harman through the perfect plans, growing pains and lucky breaks from a brilliant decade as an England cricketer.

Part one: 2002-2003

"Call me James"
When, in December 2002, an awkward 20-year-old Beckham-alike with a tinted barnet and permanent scowl walked out at the MCG to make his ODI debut, the home crowd didn't have a clue who he was. In fact, such had been the speed of his ascent from the Burnley Cricket Club pavilion to world cricket's most imposing colosseum, even the English die-hards were left scratching their heads. He didn't even have a name or number on the back of his shirt.

His name was James Anderson - not Jimmy, because his mum didn't like it - and he was about to play his sixth professional one-day match. For England. At the MCG.

That winter Anderson had won a place on the academy tour to Australia on the back of an impressive first full season in county cricket and when Andy Caddick went down injured during England's triangular ODI series he was called in as cover. Nasser Hussain immediately saw enough to throw him in at the deep end, head first.

On debut he came in for some brutal treatment at the hands of Gilchrist and Ponting but England stuck with him and Anderson grew into the series, sending down six maidens in a superb spell of 1-12 in Adelaide - England's cheapest ten-over spell for 20 years. A fit again Caddick returned to the side but Anderson was retained. Nasser thought he had come across something special. He was about to be proved right.

World Cup group match v Pakistan, Cape Town, February 2003
4 for 29
"We were bowling second and we'd seen it swing in the first innings so we knew it would swing for a little bit, but because of the lights and the conditions it swung for longer than we expected. I still remember the wickets: I got Inzi [Inzamam ul-Haq] first, then Mohammad Yousuf, then a left-hander [Saeed Anwar] and the fourth was the keeper [Rashid Latif], with one that lifted a bit.

"In the meeting we'd had the night before Nasser had talked about getting Yousuf with a yorker early and I managed to get him first ball with one that swung. One thing that sticks in my mind is on my last ball - I think I'd gone for 25 off 9.5 overs - Nasser said, 'Whatever you do, just don't go for four'. Obviously the next ball went for four and I just heard Nasser at mid-off go, 'Noooooooo!'

"There was this temporary stand in the corner and I remember fielding down there. The atmosphere was incredible. It was also the first international match that my family had been to; my dad, uncle, granddad and cousin came over and just to know they were there to see that was brilliant. "

With Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick's Test careers all but over there was a gap in the market. After his World Cup exploits Anderson was proclaimed the saviour of England's pace attack - a daunting tag considering he had just played one full season with Lancashire and was yet to even don the whites for his country.

Touching 90mph, with the ability to swing the ball late, Anderson appeared to have the makings of a top-drawer Test seamer, but with South Africa touring that summer, England's rough diamond would be given an early examination against one of Test cricket's most prolific batting line-ups. First up though, Zimbabwe.

First Test v Zimbabwe, Lord's, May 2003
5 for 73 and 0 for 65
"There were nerves. There was an expectation to do well in Test cricket having done well in the World Cup and I did feel that. There were some experienced guys around to talk to about my bowling and help me through the confidence stuff but I probably looked at the game completely differently to the way I do now. I was just thinking, 'This is amazing, I've actually been picked for a Test match.' I didn't know how long it would last so every time I got the ball I just tried to enjoy myself.

"The only way I knew really was to pitch it up and swing it and at the stage of my career that's what I was encouraged to do. I remember we batted first and I bowled a little bit on the evening of day one and kept getting clipped down to fine leg. I didn't know what to do! Nasser came up to me and said, 'Sorry, that's my fault,' and I think I bowled from a different end the next day and ended up taking four from the Pavilion End, which I've loved bowling from ever since."

Test series v South Africa, July-September 2003
15 wickets at 39.86
"No disrespect to Zimbabwe, but that had been quite a nice introduction to Test cricket. South Africa was a bit different and a big learning curve for me. I'd got an injury and because I'd just come into the team I didn't want to tell anyone about it. It was only a niggle but it was affecting my performance and my speed. I knew it was bothering me but I thought if I let them know I might get replaced and never get back in.

"Graeme Smith was very difficult to bowl to in that series. I remember he was dropped on 8 at Lord's by Nasser and never looked back. It was a strange time for the team with Nasser standing down as captain and the bowling attack kept changing. Goughie tried to come back but his knee couldn't take it, then James Kirtley came in and Martin Bicknell played at The Oval. They didn't quite seem to know who to pick. It was different back then."


Part two: 2004-2006

Growing pains
As we waited impatiently for Anderson to turn his fleeting moments of brilliance into something more permanent, just the opposite happened. His form dipped and his confidence - shaky even in the delirium of his first forays in international cricket - appeared to desert him altogether. In the three and a half years following South Africa's 2003 tour of England he played just nine Tests, most of which he would prefer to forget. As English cricket's latest golden boy faded from the limelight, we were left to ponder whether this prodigious talent had peaked at the age of 20.

England went from strength to strength, winning six series on the bounce between 2003 and 2005. Anderson was no more than a peripheral figure, featuring in squads without playing much and struggling to do himself justice when he did. While England celebrated a famous win at the Wanderers that would set the platform for a series victory on their 2004-05 tour of South Africa, Anderson hit a new personal low as he was torn to pieces by Herschelle Gibbs and leaked 149 runs in 34 overs. Looking back, he admits his preparation for the match was poor and it was a performance that ensured he played no part in England's historic Ashes win that summer.

But sandwiched in amongst these wilderness years was one moment of personal glory - a six-wicket haul in Mumbai in his first Test in 14 months. His performance helped England to a first Test match win in India for 21 years.

Third Test v India, Mumbai, March 2006
4 for 40 and 2 for 39
"Was I confident going into that match? No! I certainly don't remember being confident. I hadn't done overly well for Lancashire in the previous season; I got a few wickets but I got them at 30. And it's always difficult when you come in for one game when people get injured.

"I can't remember thinking too much about game plans and I got quite lucky with my four-fer. I got Dravid caught down the leg side and Tendulkar wafted at a wide one and hit it to gully, but that's the kind of luck you need, especially when you're coming back into the team.

"I've got really fond memories of that Test. Owais Shah played his first game and got 80-odd and I batted with him for quite a while. It was just nice to be in that team again, back in that dressing room. There's that famous story about Johnny Cash being played in the dressing room before we went out for that last session and then Shaun Udal took all those wickets, at the age of 37 or something. At the start of that trip I'd been on the A tour in the West Indies and Cookie [Alastair Cook] and myself got called up for Vaughany and Simon Jones, so I was just happy to be involved."

The "Ring of Fire" victory was to prove another false dawn though as the flames went higher still and Anderson was struck down by a stress fracture to the back. The irony - not wasted on Anderson - was that the injury he suffered was exactly the one that coaches had been trying to avoid when they decided to tinker with his action while on academy duty in 2002. "We'd continued to tinker with it," says Anderson, "first of all to try and get some more pace and also to protect my body, thinking I was going to get an injury. Then when I eventually got an injury in 2006, which meant I missed the whole summer, I went back to my original action I started with at Lancashire during rehab."


Part three: 2007-2008

"Jimmy" swings into town
Having been laid up injured for the 2006 season, playing a handful of matches as a specialist batsman for his old club Burnley and only returning for Lancashire's final Championship match of the campaign, Anderson was a surprise inclusion in the Ashes touring party as England sought a like-for-like replacement for the crocked Simon Jones.

The series proved too much too soon. Anderson was dropped after taking two wickets for 303 runs in demoralising defeats in Brisbane and Adelaide. "When it came to my performances, I bowled like someone who was low on confidence and unsure of his place in the team," Anderson recalls. "This was no coincidence because it was how I felt." He gave a better showing on his recall to the side for the final Test in Sydney, taking three first innings wickets, but England had surrendered the urn they had fought so hard to win, in the meekest manner imaginable.

In terms of statistics alone the Ashes had done little to reignite Anderson's faltering career but it did mark a significant turning point: a return to his natural action. "For three years I'd felt like I was trying to impersonate someone else and I was thankful to be my own man again. Changing my action only served to negate all of my natural attributes… so when Mike Watkinson and Kevin Shine [England's then bowling coach] agreed a U-turn was required and that we would try to revert to something similar to what I had previously found natural, it provided me with a boost in both confidence and energy."

Watkinson agrees this passage in his career was critical in shaping the player he would go on to become. "He was a raw, young bowler and then got into a coaching system that started knocking off the rough edges a little bit. He did become a little more mechanical and it was around that time that he got his stress fracture. When Shiney and myself worked together on his rehab programme it was then that we discussed this reintroduction of rotation into his action rather than keeping it rigid, which was deemed to be the safest in those days.

"I think what's worth noting as well is that it was around that time when he recovered from the injury that he found the inswinger to go with the outswinger. In his early days he would angle in but then it would swing away and nowadays his game is based around the fact he can swing it whichever way he wants to depending on who he's bowling at. That was a real shift."

In the wake of the Ashes disappointment he was sent back to the shires at the start of the 2007 season and sat out the four-Test series against West Indies, but a timely five-wicket haul in a Roses match persuaded the England selectors to give the remodelled Jimmy a shot at India. This time, he was ready.

First Test v India, Lord's, July 2007
5 for 42 and 2 for 83
"The ball was swinging and the conditions were ideal for me. The wicket of Ganguly especially stands out. I set him up with a few outswingers and then bowled him with an inswinger - that'll stick in the memory for a long time. And to get the other two [Dravid and Tendulkar] as well, I don't think anyone had ever got all three of them in one innings before.

"As a bowler you're always trying to find consistency and I don't think there's a secret behind it; it's just years of hard work and practice and trying to learn from the times that you do badly. I think this was the start of me being a more consistent bowler and it was the best I'd bowled for England up to that point. I don't know what clicked but since then I seem to have grown in confidence and found that consistency.

"I learned a lot from watching Zaheer Khan in this series and have continued to do so. The biggest thing I've learnt from him is covering the ball when it's reversing, although that's generally more useful in the subcontinent. I try to watch as much cricket as I can and watch all the fast bowlers I can to try and pick out little tricks that might help my own game. "

Zaheer Khan's swing bowling masterclass would prove too much for the hosts, who succumbed to a 1-0 defeat, but the performances of Anderson - who had developed a sharp inswinger to complement his natural away swing to finish the series as England's leading wicket-taker - suggested he was finally on track to turn into the bowler we all hoped he would become.

However, the emergence of Ryan Sidebottom and Stuart Broad meant competition for places was fierce and when England touched down in New Zealand for their 2007-08 tour Anderson found himself carrying the drinks. That was all soon to change though, as a heavy defeat in the first Test in Hamilton prompted England's selectors to make a brave call. For the next match in Wellington seasoned performers Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard were discarded and in came Anderson and Broad. The baton had been passed. Anderson responded by taking five of the first six Kiwi wickets to fall as a rejuvenated England roared back to take the series 2-1.

Second Test v New Zealand, Wellington, March 2008
5 for 73 and 2 for 57
"I've spoken to Broady about this match since and when you look back it was a big call on the part of the selectors. When something like that happens you do feel under pressure but the biggest thing I felt was confidence because the coach had put his faith in us ahead of two experienced bowlers who have got hundreds of wickets. That responsibility certainly gave me more confidence and I think that's true of Stuart too.

"We batted first and the night of the first day we had a game of football on the outfield and I tried one Cruyff turn too many and twisted my ankle. I actually left the ground on crutches thinking I wasn't going to play any part in the game. I kept an ice pack on it all night while I was sleeping and the next day luckily there wasn't any damage done really. When I came back to the ground I was thinking, 'If I don't do well here then I'm going to look an idiot'. There was a strong wind but it comes straight down the ground in Wellington, which is good for swing bowlers, and it just seemed to swing for a long time. "

England's fightback in New Zealand sounded the death knell for Hoggard, while Harmison featured only sporadically over the next two years, and in their absence Anderson revelled in the greater responsibility being placed on his shoulders. He continued to torment the Kiwis on their return tour to England in the summer of 2008, taking 19 wickets at 19 including a standout performance that remains statistically his best in Test cricket.

Third Test v New Zealand, Trent Bridge, June 2008
7 for 43 and 2 for 55
"I bowled well that day. I remember some nice looking wickets on TV, batsmen trying to hit it through the leg side and the ball hitting off stump. Was I starting to feel like the leader of the attack? Kind of, yeah. Ryan Sidebottom was in the team and he was very experienced but he's also relatively quiet so I did feel that responsibility.

"When you've had some good performances at a ground you always try and look back to those fond memories and hope they'll inspire you - there are grounds like that for me and Trent Bridge is one of them. Part of it is the enjoyment of the place where you are. I know it sounds strange, but I like Nottingham, I like the hotel we stay in, I like the journey to the ground in the morning and it means when you play there you're relaxed. All that kind of stuff helps."


Part four: 2009-

Leader of the pack
While Anderson settled in to his new role as the spearhead of England's attack the team itself was in a state of flux as three consecutive series defeats (to South Africa, India and West Indies) were punctuated by two changes of captain and the appointment of Andy Flower as team director.

No longer a loose cannon, Anderson was now one of the few reliable cogs in a team in upheaval and he would go on to play a pivotal role in galvanising a fractious group and help England to soar up the Test rankings, starting with the reclamation of the Ashes in the summer of 2009.

Having dug England out of a hole in the series opener in Cardiff by blocking out the last 19 overs, Anderson tore through Australia's top order in the next Test at Lord's to put his side on course for victory; his early dismissal of Ricky Ponting proving to be a critical moment. "I enjoyed setting up Ponting," recalls Anderson. "It's all well and good having a plan but you've got to be able to back it up, so to do that was extremely satisfying. It was swinging a little bit and I had to beat the bat a couple of times, then I got him with a full, straight one. It's pleasing when you can pull off a plan like that and also with Ponting being one of their key players, if you got him early you felt like it had an effect on the rest of their team. We knew it was a huge wicket for us."

England recovered from a hiccup at Headingley to take the series at The Oval and the Ashes win set the platform for an incredible run of eight wins from nine series, culminating in the whitewash over India two summers later which saw them claim the title of the world's No.1 Test side. Meanwhile, Anderson was rapidly becoming a master of his craft.

First Test v Pakistan, Trent Bridge, July 2010
5 for 54 and 6 for 17
"That's the best I've bowled. It was swinging a good amount and I got a couple of left-handers clean bowled from round the wicket, pitching it on the stumps and then moving it away. That's a really difficult skill that I've practised, practised and practised, and got really frustrated with at times. I was so glad it was starting to pay off because it's such a dangerous ball.

"It was something Fred used to do brilliantly and Ottis Gibson [England's then bowling coach] had been encouraging me to do it more and more. The biggest advantage it gives me is that when I bowl over the wicket to a left-hander the majority of them these days are set up to not get out lbw, because they know bowlers are going to try and swing it back into them. So for me to be able to come round the wicket and swing it away gives me an extra advantage. "

England arrived in Australia in an unfamiliar position as favourites and lived up to their billing in the second Test in Adelaide. English fans - still smarting from the humiliation at the same venue four years previously - must have feared the worst when Ricky Ponting called correctly and opted for first use of a pitch tipped to be a batsman's paradise. Thirteen balls in, though, and all hell had broken loose.

Second Test v Australia, Adelaide, December 2010
4 for 51 and 2 for 92
"It was strange because we looked at the pitch in the morning and it wasn't a definite 'bat first' wicket. There was a bit of a tinge of green, which we knew wouldn't last long with the heat, but we knew if it was going to do anything it would do it in that first hour or two.

"Also whenever we lose the toss we think that if we can keep the opposition down to less than three an over throughout the day and create some pressure then we can get wickets, even if it's a flat deck. So we went in with that mentality and obviously got off to a great start with Trotty's run out. The rest was just a one off really - you're never going to get a team 2-3 very often.

"The ball I got Ponting with was meant to wobble, I bowled it with a scrambled seam, but it just held its line and he went for the drive and nicked it. Then I got Clarke with the outswinger. "

Fourth Test v Australia, Melbourne, December 2010 4 for 44 and 1 for 71
"Bowling first at Melbourne was a huge call. A few guys had got involved in discussions that morning, looked at the pitch and thought there was a bit of green there, similar to Adelaide, but we thought it might carry a bit more. We thought that if we were wrong about the pitch, batted first and then it seamed we could be four wickets down after an hour and it's so hard to win from there. But if we bowled first and we were wrong, we were confident in our bowling at the time that we could keep it tight, not go at more than three an over and nag away. Even if they were 300 for 6 at the end of the day then we'd still be in the game. I thought that was a great call from Straussy to bowl first.

"I think it was Warne that said if you win the toss, you bat and if you're unsure, then you bat, and that's what Swanny's thinking is. He's really old-fashioned like that. But the rest of the bowlers were thinking bowl first, we were quite confident about it. That whole first day, with the history behind the Boxing Day Test at the MCG - it was packed, it was noisy - to bowl them out for 98, then pile on the runs and by the end of the day there's only 20,000 people left in the ground and they're all English! It was just an incredible feeling. That's the perfect day of Test cricket."

England's surge continued with a whitewash over India the next summer to usurp the vanquished visitors as the No.1 ranked Test nation, leading Anderson to proclaim that this group could "become one of the best, if not the best, England team there has ever been". From there the road has been rocky though, as England came back to earth with a bump in the UAE before relinquishing their No.1 ranking to South Africa last summer.

Anderson admits England struggled to adjust to their new lofty position and their form suffered as a result but this winter marked another significant turning point as Alastair Cook took over the captaincy and marshalled his side to a historic series win in India. Once again Anderson led from the front.

Third Test v India, Kolkata, December 2012
3 for 89 and 3 for 38
"In the first two games I got a wicket in each and I was thinking, 'Jesus, this is hard work'. The first two games I didn't really get it off the straight; I swung one ball, got a wicket in Mumbai and that was it! The pitches were more abrasive for the last two games, which helps reverse swing and as soon as you get it moving sideways it makes a bowler's job a lot easier - it keeps you in the game, keeps you interested.

"You get wickets slightly differently on the subcontinent than you do anywhere else; you still get them caught behind and caught slip but in different ways. In England I tend to go for the outswinger all the time because you know it's going to carry through and you might get a nick, whereas in the subcontinent you really have to set people up a bit; you can't constantly go out, you might have to bowl a few inswingers.

"I think the biggest point from that series was our two spinners were much better than their two spinners. In hindsight we should have played two spinners in the first Test that we lost but we got sucked into the English way of thinking that we do well when we play three seamers. Monty [Panesar] showed how valuable he is to us. "

As Anderson enters his 11th year as an England cricketer with more than 500 international wickets under his belt, there remains plenty for him to achieve. Still just 30, if he can stay fit, and there is no reason to suggest he won't, based on his recent track record and phenomenal fitness levels, then he's on target to reel in Ian Botham as England's leading wicket-taker in Tests (he's 95 behind Beefy at the time of writing) in the next three to four years.

Then from a team point of view there's that line about this side having the potential to become England's best ever, his determination "to create a legacy". Victory in India edged them closer to that goal, and back-to-back Ashes win in the next 12 months would move them nearer still.

Anderson's personal legacy - as one of the finest exponents of swing that English cricket has ever seen - is already assured, but another two or three years like the last and we could be taking about the best we've ever had.

This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of All Out Cricket magazine. Click here for All Out Cricket's latest subscription offers