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James Anderson hails 'absolute freak' Ben Stokes, and proves there's life after 40

England veteran says he's loving his role more than ever in attack-minded Test team

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Playing his 100th home Test, James Anderson removed Sarel Erwee early in the first morning  •  Getty Images

Playing his 100th home Test, James Anderson removed Sarel Erwee early in the first morning  •  Getty Images

James Anderson hailed Ben Stokes as "an absolute freak" for his remarkable all-round exploits in the second Test at Emirates Old Trafford, but joked that he could be better still if he had "a body that functioned properly", after England squared the series against South Africa with a crushing innings-and-85-run victory.
Stokes was named as Player of the Match following a game-seizing century on the second afternoon, but it was his gruelling 14-over spell either side of the tea break that set England up for victory inside three days. In the space of nine balls after the break, he prised out both of South Africa's set batters, Rassie van der Dussen and Keegan Petersen, before ceding the stage to Anderson and Ollie Robinson, armed with the new ball, whose combined haul of five wickets in 31 balls delivered the victory in style.
"It's frightening. He's just an absolute freak," Anderson told Sky Sports. "He does that day in, day out, he's just got a hundred as well yesterday. He batted for however long, and then to be able to put in that sort of spell and get the wickets that he did.
"That was the key, being able to break them open before the new ball made a huge difference," Anderson added. "And imagine if he had a body that actually functioned properly, he'd be absolutely frightening. He's an absolute machine and he leads by example as well. He's not just a good captain on the field. The way he just shows us how to play the game is a real credit to him."
Speaking during the post-match presentations, Stokes himself explained the logic behind his extended spell.
"I looked at the scoreboard to see how many overs we had to the new ball," he said. "I really wanted to make sure that I didn't have to turn to Jimmy or Robbo before the new ball, because I knew how important that period was going to be for us. I felt really good rhythm. The ball was reverse-swinging, I got my tail up, everything felt good, and it worked out well."
Anderson, who finished with match figures of 6 for 62 in 30 overs, was full of admiration for Stokes' efforts, but also gratitude for the impact on his own role. After years of being asked to bowl the hard yards at uncompromising moments of matches, he admitted to a new lease of life at the age of 40, and added that he feels like a leader of the attack in the truest sense, now that England are fully committed to attacking games under the new management of Stokes and Brendon McCullum.
"I think I've smiled more than I ever have on a cricket field, I'm absolutely loving it," Anderson said. "I've really enjoyed the last few months. The way Ben and Brendon want to play, my role's become a little bit different. I'm not a defensive bowler anymore at all. They want me to take wickets the whole time, and think about taking wickets the whole time. So that's my sole focus, and the group's sole focus.
"Everyone's clear on their role," he added. "They're clear about what the captain and coach expect of them, which is a massive help. It just takes away any doubt, it allows you to focus on your job. Which it might sound simple, but sometimes things can get cloudy. There's so much to think about, especially from a technique point of view in this game, whether you're a batter or a bowler. So having that clarity when you go out on the field, it makes a huge difference."
It doesn't always go right, of course, and England were given the hurry-up in the Lord's Test last week, when it was South Africa's turn to seal an innings win inside three days. But Anderson insisted that the team had never lost faith in the methods that had delivered four thrilling wins against New Zealand and India earlier in the summer.
"We spoke a lot after the last game about how we can be better," he said. "Certainly with the ball, we stuck to our guns. We tried to keep attacking fields and catchers in the whole way through the game. And with the bat, what we spoke about was trying to learn when to soak up pressure when we needed to, and when to be able to put it back on to the opposition."
Anderson and Stokes both singled out the efforts of Zak Crawley at the top of the order, who had come into the match under pressure following a run of low scores, and once again missed out on a significant total in making 38 from 101 balls in England's only innings. However, he did so by resisting South Africa's quicks during the most hostile passage of the match, a performance which Anderson said had been "wise beyond his years".
"I think he knows that he's got the backing of the group," Anderson added. "We all know how good a player is. He's not performed to the standard that he would set of himself, and got the runs that he would have liked. But that's Test cricket as an opener, especially in England, it's a hard place to bat. But for me, it's about trying to keep him positive. He deserves his place in the team."
As for his own standards, Anderson has once again shown he's right at the top of his game. In the course of his final day's work, he went past Glenn McGrath's haul of 949 wickets across all formats of international cricket - the previous most by any quick bowler - and with 24 wickets at 17.66 for the summer so far, he is arguably bowling better now than any previous stage of his already stellar career - and in no mood to give it all up just yet.
"In Test cricket, you've got to run in hard, especially on a pitch like this where it slowed up when it got older," he said. "I try and look after my body so I'm able to do it, because I absolutely love doing it. With the skills there, it's just about trying to make sure the body can allow me to do it.
"The older you get, the more you've got to look after yourself," he added. "Niggles do creep in a little bit more, it takes longer to recover from injuries as well. So for me, I've got to try and keep myself in the best shape, keep those niggles away, and I'll need a bit of luck as well along the way. But yeah, I'm absolutely loving it."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket