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Match Analysis

England unveil succession plan as Atkinson emerges from the shadows

Seven-wicket debut suggests England might be ready for life after Anderson

It might have been cool if James Anderson had presented Gus Atkinson with his maiden Test cap. You know, departing great to young upstart. Cap No. 613 anointing No. 714. The passing of the torch or baton, depending on your preferred metaphor. Come on - this stuff writes itself.
But in the the end, it was Ollie Pope in charge of the ceremonies in front of Atkinson's family. And for good reason: not just as Test vice-captain and Surrey teammate, but an age-group ally since the academy U11s. They know each other so well in that Pope can vouch for Atkinson's sense of humour, having cracked the stern disposition long before either of them made their first-class debuts.
Four-and-a-half hours later, we had our narrative-laced shot, and chaser. With Anderson in the midst of a "no, after you, I insist" back-and-forth with his nine other teammates encouraging him to take the cursory first step off the field, Atkinson was already through the doors of the Lord's Pavilion. The new kid on the block had the honour of actually leading the team off following a 7 for 45 on debut blitzing West Indies for 121. Anderson's reluctant leaving do was now Atkinson's coming-out party.
The transition came just two balls after replacing Anderson at the Pavilion End. Kraigg Brathwaite - once Anderson's 500th Test dismissal - dragged on to become Atkinson's first. Just 51 deliveries later, he had only his second five-wicket haul in his 20th first-class appearance - the last three coming in the space of four balls of his ninth over. The remaining two were picked up across three at the start of his 11th.
Much like Atkinson, the switch of the decorations and re-frosting of the first day's cake was rushed. He paces to the crease like a man who has lost the belt to his trousers before the right arm comes over the shoulder with the kind of vigour that suggests he has just found the person who stole it. He touched 90mph/145kph, while averaging 86.5mph/139.2kph across his 12 overs. Even set against a dire West Indies performance, Atkinson was impressive in his own right.
Something about the simplicity of how he does what he does makes the appreciated complexities of pace bowling a little easier to grasp, and maybe actually a tad overblown. After 21 years of Anderson manipulating the seam into intricate positions, here was a 26-year-old just wanging it into the pitch, really damn hard.
Make no mistake, there is craft to them wangs. The dismissals of left-handers Kirk McKenzie and Alick Athanaze, caught at second and first slip, respectively, were very deliberate scrambled-seam deliveries.
It was this variation that impressed in training sessions during the 2023 ODI World Cup. His pace got him into the squad, but his knack for moving the ball into right-handers had Atkinson earmarked as a unique threat. An outlier in a world of away-swing bowlers, which was a factor in his selection for the India series at the start of the year, even if he did not see any action.
"My stock ball is scrambled seam," Atkinson said, armed with the second-best figures by an England bowler on Test debut. "With the slope from the Pavilion End, that was my most dangerous ball, targeting fourth stump and trying to run it down the hill. Trying to push it across the lefties, with the odd inswinger. That was the best way I could get wickets... the seam was a bit more scrambled than I'd like, but that's something I could work on."
Factor in an action with no discernible change - drawing comparisons with Jofra Archer - and there is a lot to dislike as an opposition batter. Jason Holder was squared up on the crease expecting something fuller; Joshua da Silva late committing forward for his inside edge through to Jamie Smith. And no tailender warrants being twisted in opposite directions the way Shamar Joseph was.
It's worth noting that for all the nerves Atkinson had this morning that he was trying suppress - "my dad kept saying, 'this is the biggest day of your life!'" - the build-up, the occasion and even the pre-11 o'clock tributes centred around Anderson helped him slip in seamlessly. If it unsettled the soon-to-be departing, it certainly helped the new arrival.
"I was still pretty nervous going into it," Atkinson said in his press conference. "But the focus was on Jimmy, so it was quite nice to go under the radar a bit."
For all the difficulties there will be in replacing Anderson, the first cab off the rank has pulled out into the road, in between the floats and marching band. And that it is an atypical English bowler, whose 34 first-class dismissals at 24.14 from the start of 2023 leading into this fixture have come across 19 innings without taking the new ball, and primarily as a second-change bowler, will pay it forward.
The route remains clear for a traditional opening bowler to fill the void Anderson leaves. Even Chris Woakes, who from next week will get first choice of ends for the first time in his 11-year career. But the void, at this juncture, may not be as great as first feared.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo