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Analysis

James Anderson's magic spell conjures up memories of Andrew Flintoff in 2005

With two wickets in four balls, and a third two overs later, Anderson provides spark at the perfect moment

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
09-Feb-2021
The method may have been subtly different but the impact was every bit as spectacular. Just as Andrew Flintoff ripped open the 2005 Edgbaston Test with a sensational and never-to-be-forgotten over of high-class reverse-swing bowling, James Anderson did likewise on the final day in Chennai - to set up an England victory that deserves to be recalled as one of their finest in recent memory.
In claiming two wickets in four balls, either side of an excruciatingly tight lbw shout, and a third two overs later to prise out India's first-innings star turn, Rishabh Pant, Anderson provided the spark of inspiration at the perfect moment, as England rumbled through to a 227-run win - their sixth in a row in Asia - that sets up this four-Test series as another potential classic.
"He's the GOAT of English cricket," Joe Root, England's captain, told Star Sports at the close. "He's finding ways of constantly challenging himself, and he's getting better all the time."
"I can't think of [a better over] in my time," he added later. "It reminded me a little bit of Flintoff in '05, the impact of that over to Ponting and Langer, but in the context of this game it was huge.
"When you are looking around, in big moments in Test matches, naturally you expect that from him and the likes of Ben Stokes, coming on and taking the wicket of Virat Kohli. Big-game players stand up and do special things."
As was the case with Flintoff at Edgbaston, all those years ago, the stage had been set by the time Anderson entered the fray in the second hour of the morning, and if the jeopardy wasn't quite comparable given England's weighty cushion of runs in this contest, then the opportunity was there for India, at 92 for 2, to build themselves towards a position whereby stalemate might yet be possible.
The old ball, after all, had been England's Achilles heel in overseas conditions in recent years - not least on their last tour of India in 2016-17, when their spinners were all too easily neutralised once the leather began to soften, and when Anderson himself was only semi-fit having battled back from a shoulder fracture that might have dissuaded a less dogged combatant from boarding the plane in the first place.
This time, however, he arrived at the top of his mark at the top of his game - and at the age of 38 as well, of all the preposterous postscripts. It had been more than a decade, since Lord's 2009 in fact, since Anderson had last been shunted off the new ball in a Test match, but the logic was utterly sound on this occasion. In his stead, Jack Leach benefitted from the hard bounce and rip to prise out two priceless scalps in alliance with the menacing Jofra Archer, leaving Anderson to focus on the swing as the shine began to dissipate.
And just like Flintoff in 2005, Anderson needed just a single sighter before hurtling into the game. Shubman Gill had caressed his way to a wonderfully serene half-century - but even his fast hands and keen eye had no answer for a stunning off-stump heat-seeker that screeched back through the gate to send the stump cartwheeling and the contest ablaze.
Anderson's is a different brand of reverse-swing to the bruising, deck-hitting menace that Flintoff made his trademark during his early-2000s pomp. He is lighter through the crease and skiddier off the pitch, but it's the relentlessness that sets his game apart from any other contemporary practitioner. When every ball is demanding a decision, regardless of its misbehaviour through the air or off the pitch, that makes his magic balls all the more devastating, as Rahane discovered before he could lay bat on ball.
Not unlike Ponting in 2005, Rahane's immediate awareness of the dangers did little to mitigate the challenge he faced. He might have been dismissed by his second delivery, another wickedly zippy inswinger that smashed him on the shin but was adjudged umpire's call on review. Undeterred, Anderson simply returned to the top of his mark and did it all over again - producing such a pinpoint reload that Rahane's leg bail was left unruffled as his off stump tumbled gleefully towards the keeper.
"It's always nice to see stumps cartwheeling out of the ground because it doesn't happen very often my age," Anderson said. "It just really tops off a really good performance throughout the five days.
"The pitch was deteriorating, which we knew, so it was about getting enough balls in the right spot," he added. "I got lucky with the bounce on a few of them, but it got us off to a good start for the day.
"[The reverse swing] was huge for us. The pitch wasn't particularly quick, but that movement in the air makes it so much better for us seamers, it makes you feel like you can get a wicket with any ball."
And by the time Rishabh Pant was unseated with a more cerebral but no less skilful piece of bowling - drawn hard-handedly into a punch to short cover after being challenged to keep playing his natural stroke-filled game - Anderson had snaffled three wickets for seven runs in six overs, to take his tally for the winter to 11 wickets for 99 runs in 54 overs. Average 9.00, economy-rate 1.83. Incision and parsimony combined to extraordinary effect.
"For someone at 38 years old to be still getting better, still being as fit as he's ever been, is huge credit to his desire to play for England," Root said. "He's a great role model to the rest of the group. And his skill level is right up there. He's still as good as anyone you'll ever see, and long may that continue."
It's become passé to point out that Anderson is actually rather a handy bowler in Asian conditions, in spite of the reputation that has dogged too much of his career. In the course of this wicket-spree, his average in India briefly dipped below 30 - even as he ticked past Courtney Walsh to become the most successful 30-plus fast bowler in Test history. He has the small matter of 343 at 23.44 since August 2012, numbers that aren't a million miles from the great Dennis Lillee's former world-record haul.
For he's been doing this for decades - he played a starring role in England's series-levelling victory in Mumbai in 2006, and six years after that, he was hailed by MS Dhoni no less as the "difference between the sides" when his 12 wickets in England's 2-1 series win were three times as many as any other fast bowler on either side. At Kolkata, in fact, he produced a spell so incisive that Sachin Tendulkar recently claimed he had produced "reverse-reverse swing".
Frankly, endorsements of one's India credentials don't get much bigger than those two names. But Anderson himself is adamant he's got yet more to come.
"It's hard to compare, really," he said of his original starring role in India, almost 15 years ago now. "I think I'm a very different bowler. I've got a lot more skills, and I feel like I can perform on a variation of surfaces.
"Now back then I relied heavily on swing and reverse swing. Now I've got cutters and other things to help me on different pitches. And I think my consistency is also improved.
"I feel like I'm getting better," he added. "I feel like I can still keep improving my fitness, my skills and my consistencies. I don't see why I can't get better. And that's what I strive to do so.
"When I don't feel like I need to come to the ground and practise my skills in the nets to get better, maybe that's when I'll need to start looking for something else to do. But right now I feel I can still get better and I'm enjoying the challenge of doing that."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket