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Shooting star to Supernova: Twenty years of James Anderson

England's greatest celebrates two decades of back-breaking, shoulder-wrenching, ankle-stomping wear and tear

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
James Anderson claimed five wickets on his Test debut, 20 years ago this week  •  PA Photos

James Anderson claimed five wickets on his Test debut, 20 years ago this week  •  PA Photos

Twenty years. It is a preposterous landmark for any international sportsman to achieve, let alone an international, all-time-great fast bowler.
Twenty years of back-breaking, shoulder-wrenching, ankle-stomping wear and tear. Twenty years of rising, of falling, of plateauing, of being put out to pasture, and of being roped back in again. Twenty years of bettering one's elders, then matching one's peers, then disproving the doubters while beating back the younger, theoretically hungrier pretenders. And all the while, finding the inner fire to keep believing the struggle is, not just real, but worth it.
At the age of 40 years and 296 days, James Anderson clearly still believes. Assuming his groin niggle is nothing more than that, he's already inked in for his tenth Ashes campaign this summer - and a realistic shot at 700 Test wickets - even if he may have to wait until Ireland have been and gone before he's unleashed for a record 28th Test appearance at Lord's.
But temporally speaking, he's already entering his third decade as an England cricketer. On May 22, 2003, he was picked for the first of those Lord's Tests - and the first of his 179 all told - alongside Yorkshire's Anthony McGrath (whose own four-match career would be done and dusted before that summer was). And on the third day of that match, with first-innings figures of 5 for 73, the first of Anderson's seven appearances on the dressing-room honours boards duly came to pass.
At that precise moment, it felt as though Anderson's England career was panning out like a prophecy. For extraordinary though it is to relate, given how many career evolutions he has since undergone, he arrived at that Test debut, two months shy of his 21st birthday, with a fully-formed narrative arc that could quite easily have defined and destroyed a lesser player.
The story had begun six months earlier, at the mid-point of a bruising Ashes tour in December 2002, when England's golden child was plucked from Burnley in the Lancashire League and unleashed in the one-day leg of the tour, to face down an Australia ODI team at the absolute zenith of its power.
On his England debut at Melbourne, Anderson was confronted with a brace of centuries for Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist, no less - the Players-of-the-Match-elect for Australia's next two World Cup final victories, at Johannesburg in 2003 and Barbados in 2007. And yet, on a furnace-hot day in Adelaide one month later, his spell of 10-6-12-1 slowed Australia's juggernaut to a crawl, and proved his own worthiness to lead England's attack in the first of those tournaments in the New Year.
Against Pakistan in Cape Town, Anderson took to the floodlights like a Newlands moth, inflicting dastardly first-ballers on both Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf en route to match-winning figures of 4 for 29; against Australia in a must-win show-down at Port Elizabeth one week later, however, he was zapped into the scoreboard by Andy Bichel for a match-losing six, as Hussain banked on his young gun's magic in the critical penultimate over, and found it could not yet be delivered on cue.
Therein lay the context as Anderson stepped into the fray two months later, as England Test cap No. 613, and with about as much hinterland as any young unknown fast bowler could possibly possess. Not even a full year had elapsed since he had bowled second-change for Lancashire against Surrey on his first-class debut in May 2002; now he was sharing the new ball with Matthew Hoggard in a Test match at Lord's … and he duly served a 17-run maiden over, topped by two no-balls in his first three deliveries, and tailed with a trio of leg-stump half-volleys as he over-strained for his outswinger and was picked off with ease by Dion Ebrahim.
But then, by degrees, the stardust began to settle back on Anderson's game. Compared to the compact and perfectly-oiled machine that he has long since become, the 2003 prototype had a more frantic flap to his elbows on approach, and a more deliberate pause at the point of delivery, prior to a dramatic 'whang' of his shoulder - with his head tucking under his left wing like a baby bird - that was like nothing he's since tried to recreate.
Back then, that zip in his follow-through could nudge the fledgling Anderson up towards 90mph in his liveliest spells. But, quite apart from attracting the unwelcome attention of the ECB's biomechanists - on whose watch his game would be hollowed out over the next three years - it also left him reliant on rhythm rather than the guile that his talents would later be married to. Even while ripping out Zimbabwe's last four wickets in a 14-ball onslaught at Lord's, "his nervous smile looked like that of an apprentice magician," as Paul Coupar wrote in Wisden's match report. "Delighted with the result but unsure exactly how he'd managed it."
Nevertheless, Anderson was hot to trot for a good while yet. By the midpoint of the summer, he'd picked off a hat-trick against Pakistan and dyed a red go-faster stripe in his hair - an add-on that may or may not have contributed to Ferrari flying him by helicopter to meet Michael Schumacher at the British Grand Prix, an invite he had initially turned down because of a birthday barbeque at his parents' house.
With indecent haste, however, his first coming would start to unravel - at the hands of South Africa's Graeme Smith in the first instance, but also through the unfortunate presumption that his flashy tastes in clothing and haircuts could earn him a media cut-through as cricket's answer to David Beckham. By October, he had been chosen as the inaugural cover star for the newly-minted Wisden Cricketer magazine ("I really don't like having my photo taken", he conceded during his shoot), and by the time that issue hit the stands, the intro to a dramatically re-worked interview was comparing him to a "dotcom disaster".
Within the span of that scene-stealing performance at Lord's, however - which began with a nip-backer to plink the top of Mark Vermeulen's middle stump, and was capped in his 16th over by one of his already familiar magic balls to Douglas Hondo - there were signs both of the struggle that would envelop his early years, but also of the insuperable attitude that would keep his career on track during the fallow years to come - not least the pointed stare at his second victim, Heath Streak, whose stumps he had just thumped with a late-swinging yorker.
Anderson has now chalked up so many milestones in the course of his career, it's almost redundant to remark on his longevity, or his athleticism, or the fine-tuning of that innate skill that - in one of the most telling subplots of his incredible statistics - has now earned him 417 wickets at 23.17 since he turned 30. That, incidentally, is 34 more than the previous England record tally of 383, which Ian Botham had held for 30 years until Anderson himself broke it in Antigua in April 2015.
Even so, at this juncture of a sport in eternal flux, it's worth reiterating that Anderson's career is longer, by three whole weeks, than the T20 format - the inaugural Twenty20 Cup debuted on June 13.
His career predates social media, too. Never mind Twitter or Instagram, even MySpace didn't come along until August that year. But if an exploding head emoji was an apt and succinct way for the man himself to commemorate the milestone, his current captain, Ben Stokes, perhaps said it best.
"I was 11," Stokes tweeted.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket