A mouse who's beginning to roar
When you watch James Anderson bowl as he did today - with pace, panache, confidence and intense skill - you throw your arms to the heavens and wonder where he's been for the past five years. But then you hear him speak - quietly, cagily, juggling each question like a hand-grenade - and the meekness of his character floods back into view. At the age of 25, time is clearly on his side if he is to be the future of England's bowling. The trouble is, when you're as bothered by your past as Anderson has clearly been, it's hard to know when that future's meant to begin.
This week, the future - finally - was foisted upon England, and Anderson's response was his finest performance in months. The abject nature of the defeat in Hamilton meant that change could wait no longer, and with the demise of Steve Harmison , and more surprisingly, Matthew Hoggard, the message was sent out to all and sundry. Reputations now count for diddly squat. When a side with as many expectations as England is faced with a third series defeat in a row, there's no room for living on past glories anymore.
That situation suited Anderson right down to his bowling boots, because he has no glories to fall back on - at least none than weren't torched when his brief and ludicrous reign as cricket's golden boy came to an end in the summer of 2003. Incredible as it may seem, Anderson has been an England Test cricketer since May of that year, when he even took a five-for on debut at Lord's . His career predates every member of the side bar the captain, Michael Vaughan, and the anomaly, Ryan Sidebottom, yet he's played only 21 Tests - five fewer than the least experienced batsman, Alastair Cook, and four fewer than even Monty Panesar.
He's been on nine Test tours but played in only eight overseas matches, and he's never played more than two in a row in the same country. When England's Ashes Fab Four were being formulated in the years 2004 and 2005, he was the definitive fifth Beatle, afforded about as much recognition as a studio session drummer. Duncan Fletcher had no idea how to get through to him, and Anderson's appearance at every lunch interval became a source of intense pathos. It was as if he was touring the world with a single stump in his hold-all and bowling at it over ... and over ... and over again.
Fletcher's been gone for the best part of a year now, and though Peter Moores has not enjoyed the best of starts in Test cricket, where Anderson is concerned, he's shown a welcome understanding of his needs. The New Zealand press is currently in a lather about last week's controversial decision to lease Anderson to Auckland for a four-day state game, but the England management knew what they were doing. Their man took 2 for 95 in a 38-over stint, and though he finished on the wrong end of an innings defeat, the chance to do something meaningful while on the sidelines was a godsend. "I've been on quite a few tours now and I've spent them bringing drinks on and bowling in the middle at a stump," said Anderson. "You can't beat match practice."
|Things may not have gone to plan in the recent series in New Zealand, but England's back-to-back wins against India and, most significantly, in Sri Lanka, were signed and sealed by the very men now being entrusted with the red ball in Tests|
When he speaks, Anderson still has that same stutter in his voice and the shrug in his demeanour - the legacy, no doubt, of the cruel manner in which he was built up and cut down by the media in the first year of his career. But today, as soon as his words had been put down on paper, they read with an unfamiliar intent, the same intent that he showed in his bowling. "I want to be the bowler that the captain can throw the ball to when we need a wicket," he roared. "I want to stake a claim and be here for a long time." Well, he didn't roar, he whispered, but you get the picture.
"It's definitely down to me now," he declared/demurred. "I've got the chance and hopefully I can make the best use of it. I felt good in the spells I bowled at Auckland, where it was a flat pitch and hard work. But I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed playing with a different set of lads as well, it was quite refreshing. And obviously, when you then come to a wicket like this that's helping you, your eyes light up a bit."
They are bland statements by the standards of, say, Kevin Pietersen. But from Anderson, they were something entirely new. He even felt confident enough to have a dig at one of his colleagues for being allowed to bat above him in England's innings. Alright, so the butt of his joke was Panesar, but the point still stands. He's a man among equals now that the big guns are out of the picture.
He is, after all, playing as part of a familiar attack. England bit the bullet in one-day cricket midway through last summer when the old guard was ditched and a familiar trio of Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom were unleashed. Things may not have gone to plan in the recent series in New Zealand, but England's back-to-back wins against India and, most significantly, in Sri Lanka, were signed and sealed by the very men now being entrusted with the red ball in Tests.
All of which underlines the feeling that Wednesday's bold team selection was not intended as a one-off. "They've been great, Hoggy and Harmy, and they wished all the bowlers well, but I guess I do thrive on responsibility," said Anderson. "I've bowled with the new ball all my life, so it does make a difference, and the one thing that's always mentioned, certainly in this attack here, is that I'm the most experienced bowler in terms of international cricket. There's that little extra responsibility on my shoulders which, I think, I do enjoy."
The feeling, while watching England's attack in this innings - albeit on a hugely helpful surface - was the same that was felt against India at Lord's last summer, when Harmison and Hoggard were unfit for selection, and Anderson led the line with a career-best haul of 5 for 42. On that occasion, Chris Tremlett played the lanky enforcer role now occupied by Stuart Broad, but Sidebottom was most certainly there, taking six wickets at two-and-a-half an over in a performance that Hoggard himself could not have bettered.
There's little room for sentiment in professional sport. Just look at the way Australia have habitually operated, turfing out their old guard as soon as a pretender makes a loud enough claim. It was a mighty misfortune for England that they could not force victory in that Lord's Test - rain swept in on the final afternoon with India already nine-down - but in truth, it still would not have provided closure. Harmison and Hoggard helped take England to such unmatched heights that the clamour for their recall could not have been ignored, even if the India series had not been lost.
Lately, however, England have been plumbing the depths, and you sense that rock-bottom is as good a place as any to start the rebuilding process. "We bowled them out for under 200 which is a pretty good statement from all the bowlers," said Anderson. "Hopefully we can stay together for a while." They were softly-spoken words, but if you listened really carefully, you could hear England's mousiest member beginning to formulate a roar.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo