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A decade on from his first visit down under, James Anderson has earned the admiration of Australians who once dismissed him as a soft target
November 12, 2013
Not many international fast bowlers have to cope with the stigma of being publicly named by opposition batsmen as someone noted for dropping his head. Fewer still can overcome it. None, however, have managed to subvert the notion quite so completely as James Anderson, the embodiment of England's evolution from uncertain to unerring.
Watching Anderson in 2013 it is difficult to comprehend exactly how lost he looked at times during his earlier days. During a new-ball spell on the final afternoon of the rain-ruined tour match in Hobart, Anderson filleted Alex Doolan and then Usman Khawaja while operating a gear or two short of his sharpest. His precision and command of movement contrasted visibly with the rest of the touring attack. Stuart Broad, Chris Tremlett and Graeme Swann are hardly callow youths battling to land the ball where they wish to, but next to Anderson's beautifully calibrated sights they were made to appear novices.
"Immensely impressive," said Ian Bell, another Englishman to have overcome modest beginnings against Australia. "He just seems to be able to turn up now without much practice and just get straight into the swing of things. We've seen it now whatever the conditions, India, Australia, South Africa he can just do it straight away. He leads our attack very well, and I'm sure he'll be passing on as much information to the younger guys as he can."
More than a decade has passed since Anderson was first one of those younger guys himself, drafted into the England ODI team in Australia following an outbreak of injuries. At a sweltering MCG he bowled Adam Gilchrist, but not before the brazen wicketkeeper had slugged 124. At the other end Ricky Ponting glided to 119, and six debut overs cost 46. Anderson's shoulders slumped as England sagged to an 89-run defeat, and from that moment the Australians felt they had the measure of the 21-year-old. "We were able to keep him down," Ponting said recently, "for long periods of time."
Those periods lasted whole days, matches and even tours. Anderson endured a problematic relationship with Troy Cooley during his tenure as the ECB bowling coach, and was notably absent during the 2005 Ashes series as Simon Jones, Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison were preferred. Cooley had swapped sides by the time of the 2006-07 tour, and when Anderson subbed in for the injured Jones in a series Australia had earmarked for vengeance, a single Ponting glare seemed enough to bring the bowler to heel.
Looking back on those days, Anderson reasons quite frankly that he was not skilful enough to respond in the way he needed to - with precision deliveries at a batsman's weak spots. "It's difficult from a bowler's point of view to impose yourself on someone when your skills aren't good enough or the ball's not going where you want it to," he said. "It was crucial in my career that I managed to figure that out and get some consistency, get my skills to the standard they need to be to play international cricket. Once I did that you can then look at imposing yourself on the opposition."
|It takes only a few minutes' observation of Anderson on the field to glimpse how well he has channelled a northern temper to add just the right amount of spice to his bowling, no more and no less|
The visible skill was also linked to the inward thoughts. Body language and mental discipline took time to master, as did the knowledge of where energy is best spent. Economy of effort is quickly apparent when viewing Anderson in repose. When either watching the game or talking about it he can seem perpetually sleepy. But it takes only a few minutes' observation of Anderson on the field to glimpse how well he has channelled a northern temper to add just the right amount of spice to his bowling, no more and no less. He is never more alert than at the top of his run-up - exactly as it should be.
"I've always been fairly aggressive," Anderson said. "But in the past it was hard to be aggressive on the field without having the skills to fall back on. You look a bit of an idiot if you're shouting and screaming and then bowling and spraying it everywhere. Now I try to use it in a controlled way to get my mind right and get into a battle and still have the skills in concentrating on what I'm doing with the ball."
Since 2009 in England, Anderson has won far more battles against Australia than he has lost. A moment of particular satisfaction arrived at Adelaide Oval in 2010, when he capitalised on the narrowest of new-ball windows on the first morning to coax edges from Ponting and his eventual successor Michael Clarke. It was a two-over burst that set England on their way, and the result of shrewd tactical planning with David Saker, the bowling coach who has overseen Anderson's development of tactical mastery to capitalise on the technical groove he rediscovered after Cooley returned home to Cricket Australia.
"I think the way he works out a batsman and comes up with plans for me we are really on the same wave length and that's the whole thing," Anderson said of Saker. "We've built up a good friendship around that and he's probably more tactically minded than he is technical from a coach's point of view. He's the best tactical bowling coach I've worked with - the stage of my career I'm at, I don't really need any technical help, it's more the tactical side of things I need help with and he's perfect for that."
The marriage of tactical nous to prodigious technical, physical and mental strength was on full display at Trent Bridge earlier this year, when Anderson's 10 wickets had the major say in the outcome of the series. Saker's hand was evident in a cutter used to foil Chris Rogers, while Anderson's concentration of will was writ large across a 13-over spell on the final morning that took England to the brink. He was to return from cramp after lunch to winkle out Brad Haddin and deliver victory, completing a performance that drained Anderson more than he admitted at the time.
"Getting 10 in the first Test is setting high standards for myself … but my form did drop off a little bit and the wickets did dry up," Anderson said. "It's something about last time I was here I managed, to maintain my consistency throughout the series. I got more wickets in that series out here than I did in England in the last one and I didn't get a five-wicket haul in the series. It showed my consistency was good throughout the series and I'll be quite happy to not take a 10 wicket haul and get 24 wickets again."
Evenness of performance is clearly an attribute Anderson values, having learned that he will be measured as much on the quality of his worst days as the sparkle of his best ones. Having now performed over time against Australia as well as the rest of the world, and shed the negative connotations once attached to him by Ponting, among others, Anderson has a rather different hurdle to overcome on this tour - matching up to the high expectations that now exist both in his own dressing room and that of his opponents. Ryan Harris, a fellow paceman cursed by youth but blessed by maturity, summed up the regard in which Anderson is now held.
"I remember watching him as a young kid, he always had the talent, it's just maturity, as you get older you get better, simple as that," Harris said. "When he was here last time he copped a lot of stick about how he hadn't performed well in Australia and he ran through us as their main wicket-taker. We know what he does, we know he swings the ball around. I'm sure our batters will be looking at all that, but we expect him to be at his best again like he has done the last few years. He's world class."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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Stats highlights from the first day of the second Test between Australia and India in Brisbane