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Heading into the Ashes series doubts still persisted over how James Anderson would cope in tough conditions. In two Tests he has answered all those questions
December 3, 2010
Seeing as this is the Ashes, the first Test at the Gabba finished with no outright consensus as to where the balance of power had belonged. England's immense second innings was tempered by the failure of their first, while Australia's trouble-free final hour with the bat went some way to assuaging the humiliation that preceded it. But if there was one single issue about which all parties could agree, it was that James Anderson's magnificence had been cruelly under-rewarded.
The what-ifs abounded after Anderson's efforts in that first innings. If either of his lbw appeals against Michael Hussey had been upheld on the third morning - the one on 85 that was plumb and not given, or the one on 82 that was given but overturned - Australia's 307-run stand would never have materialised, and a less-than-convincing tail would have been exposed to the new ball. Today on an Adelaide shirtfront, Simon Katich's early run-out offered England an alternative future in which Australia's frailties had no place to hide, and Anderson this time snatched the rewards that he felt were overdue.
"To be honest I tried to put the Gabba out of my mind," said Anderson. "I did bowl well there, I felt I bowled really well there, but the worst thing to do would be to feel sorry for yourself and not bowl well here. So I just wanted to continue the form I felt I was in, and I did that. It was hugely satisfying for everyone, to come to a ground which is notoriously flat and with big first-innings scores, a great effort for everyone to keep them to such a low score."
Anderson arrived back in Australia with a reputation for flakiness, the consequence of a demeanour that is rarely less than hangdog, and a previous record in the country that invited hoots of derision. Four years ago, he secured an unfortunate footnote in Ashes history when he finished a disastrous tour as the least successful of England's beleaguered pacemen, with five wickets at 82.60, including, on this ground, the solitary wicket of the No. 11 Glenn McGrath.
It's different now, for a multitude of reasons. For starters, he's 28 and at the peak of his powers, but more importantly, he's not only trusted by the current management but clasped to the bosom of the squad. Since his recall under Peter Moores at Wellington in March 2008, Anderson has played 34 of England's 37 Tests, a tally that would have been greater had he not been resting a dodgy knee during the tour of Bangladesh in March. Conversely, he featured in 20 Tests out of the first 64 that took place since his debut in 2003, and back in those days, his average was a naive 39.20 compared to the worldly-wise 28.06 of his second coming.
Last time he came to Adelaide, Anderson had played four overseas Tests in as many winters - in Colombo, Johannesburg, Mumbai and Brisbane respectively - which was insufficient preparation for any player, let alone one taking on an all-time great Australian team hellbent on vengeance. "To be honest, I'm a much different bowler to the one who came out here four years ago," he said. "I'm much more experienced and I've gradually got better over the last few years. It's nice to bowl well out here, but I didn't think I had to prove anything to anyone."
To hear Anderson speak in public is to be reminded of the callow youth of yesteryear, even though eight years have elapsed since he first played against Australia at Adelaide, a one-day match in January 2003 in which he bowled with waspish perfection in insufferable temperatures to claim 1 for 12 in ten overs off the reel. That performance fast-tracked him into England's World Cup squad, and onwards to premature stardom, and while he's endured all manner of tribulations in the meantime, it did perhaps leave a residual knowledge that this most inhospitable of bowling venues need not be a place of doom for all who enter it.
Like Matthew Hoggard on this same ground four years ago, when he claimed an heroic and utterly overshadowed first-innings seven-for, Anderson conquered the conditions by putting them out of his mind from the start. With the help of England's bowling coach David Saker, who has been urging him to go full and straight as a default setting, and with a handy five-wicket match on this ground against South Australia earlier in the tour, he aimed wicket-to-wicket and accepted any movement as a bonus, such as the ball that nibbled just enough to take Ricky Ponting's edge and fly to second slip for a duck.
In a crazy first half-hour, Australia's first three batsmen were hustled back off the playing surface as if they'd tried to enter the pavilion wearing thongs and a sleeveless T-shirt. "We knew there might be something in the pitch because there were tinges of green there," said Anderson. "So if we bent our backs we knew there might be something for us. Also with the warm-up match we played here there was a little in that, so we weren't too unhappy to lose the toss. The tone was set by Jonathan Trott's run-out, he kept his composure when he could have panicked, and we just took it from there."
Day by day, the public perception of Anderson is changing in Australia. This is a bowler who is comfortable in his own skin, as demonstrated quite literally by his decision to pose nude for the gay magazine, Attitude, in the lead-up to the tour - a decision of questionable timing given the reputation of Australia's crowds, but one which has not been allowed to impact on his performance in the slightest. In fact, his willingness to camp it up to his "pretty boy" reputation is brilliantly parodied in the latest edition of Graeme Swann's must-see tour video. Anyone who doubts his underlying masculinity, however, need only be reminded that after this game he is flying back to England to attend the birth of his first child.
The bottom line is that Anderson is a grown-up these days, as well one might after the best part of a decade as an England fast bowler. All the same, he looked thoroughly non-plussed at the end-of-day press conference when a journalist asked if he was the team "enforcer" - he might as well have asked if he looks in the bathroom mirror and goes "grrr" every morning. "Not really" he responded, with the dead-pan voice of old. But it was a mark of the extent to which he is now accepted as the pre-eminent paceman in the series.
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