Matches (12)
T20 Challenge (1)
BAN v SL (1)
SL-W in PAK (1)
ENG v NZ (1)
IPL (1)
Vitality Blast (4)
4-Day Championship (3)
Mark Nicholas

England's swinging shooting star

The boy from Burnley with magic in his wrist has surpassed all before him - with luck we will be able to enjoy his skill and application for a few more years yet

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
And so it was, that with a typically well-crafted delivery James Anderson found the outside edge of Denesh Ramdin's bat to become England's leading Test match wicket-taker. Alastair Cook held a fine catch and Jimmy spread his wings to fly. This was a moment of pure ecstasy; the moment the summit was reached. Wicket number 384. His joy was absolute.
It is a remarkable performance. Think George Lohmann, Sydney Barnes, Wilfred Rhodes, Harold Larwood, Alec Bedser, Brian Statham and Fred Trueman, Jim Laker and Derek Underwood, John Snow, Bob Willis and Ian Botham. Sir Ian is the man he has passed, of course, and, typically again, Ian is there in Antigua to applaud Anderson's achievement and help him celebrate. We wish you safe passage Jimmy, it could be some night.
Their records are strikingly similar, though Anderson will not have 5200 Test match runs on his grave stone. Botham's days are remembered as much for power-crazed innings that lit up the whole legend as for swing and seam. Anderson has famously saved a few Test matches with his bat and, equally famously, failed to save one at Headingley last year when, from the penultimate ball, he fended a bouncer to a joyous Sri Lankan and shed a tear because of it when interviewed immediately afterwards. This was a sensitivity hitherto unseen.
Channel 4 missed the young Lancastrian's first Test match wicket. He bowled fast outswing back then, by heaven he did, and having shone at the World Cup was brought into the Test side on the back of just 14 first-class games. After England made 472 at Lord's against Zimbabwe in the mid-May of 2003, Anderson was given the new ball on Friday evening with the country tuned in. His opening over got a proper caning, the next was easily forgotten and therefore, bang on 6pm - as agreed with the ECB in the television contract - Channel 4 switched to The Simpsons.
Thus, Homer, Bart and most of Britain missed Anderson's third over, which was a cracker and included the uprooting of stumps. Next day there were pictures in the paper of this Burnley boy with trendy tints and an enigmatic smile celebrating his first Test wicket at the game's mighty cathedral. On that Saturday morning the ball swung all over the joint and the kid picked up four poles in a breathtaking 14-ball burst. A star was born.
There is little about the present England team to make Botham purr, but purr he does when the talk is of Anderson. A shared journey I guess, two simple folk from the heartlands of working-class England who have rolled up their sleeves and risen to the top. New-ball bowling is not for the faint-hearted. It is a business of blood and sweat, a point often missed by batting captains. Rarely does this breed bowl without pain. Rhythm is the holy grail. With it, most things are possible; without it only the strongest survive. Botham was a freak, a man who could party all night and perform all day. Anderson has lived a life more ordinary but then the modern schedule demands such discipline.
In general, Botham was stronger and faster and used the bouncer more frequently - than just about anyone. His physical threat and the overwhelming power of his personality took wickets and he was able to make more of flat pitches than others less committed. Anderson uses the bouncer sparingly but snarls as much as Botham ever did. Botham's tactics changed because of injury and by the late 1980s, after a serious back operation, he was little more than medium-pace. But the confrontational approach remained and some battles were won. He might now admit that those victories were a splendid con.
Anderson's lithe body is better suited to the art of fast bowling. Latterly, he has remained pretty much injury free and has been able to cope with an era in which Test match bowlers are treated more like draft horses than Derby runners. In the next 10 months, England play 17 Test matches, many of them back-to-back. Add in all the one-day internationals and you can see why the system of central contracts was imperative. Its worth is evident in his longevity. Botham played for Somerset the day after Headingley 1981. Anderson knows no different than rest and rehab. He is 32 now and says he would like to play until he is 40. In that comment alone comes the illustration of his passion for the job and a sense of the fast bowler's insanity.
The insanity matters. It carries you out of the trenches time and time again. But the gift shared by Botham and Anderson that matters most, is the gift of swing. To swing a cricket ball is to float upon a cloud for it is a temptress of a talent, luring its practitioner to hours of experiment and rehearsal but, all too often, mixed results. Some touch upon mastery, only a few truly achieve it.
Botham was born with the inswinger - Anderson, like Malcolm Marshall, had to go and find it
Alan Knott used to say that Botham was the best swing bowler he saw. He added that he put Bob Massie's performance for Australia at Lord's in 1972 marginally ahead of Botham's against Pakistan in 1978. But, day in and out, for the five year period 1977-82, Knott had Botham without peer.
Matt Prior says much the same about Anderson, though he is wise to mention Dale Steyn along the way. Having observed the early part of his career from afar, Prior saw Anderson's second coming from close quarters. The quirk in his action that had concerned and confused coaches in equal measure, stalled his progress. When Troy Cooley - who had worked well with the England attack that won the Ashes in 2005 but could make neither head nor tail of Anderson - left the camp to head home to Australia, Jimmy was released from the torture of examination and reconstruction. Set free again, he responded with brilliance against India in the summer of 2007.
Still pacey, he added the inswinger to his repertoire and began a period of relative dominance against Sachin Tendulkar, amongst others such as Michael Clarke and Virat Kohli. Botham was born with the inswinger; Anderson, like Malcolm Marshall, had to go and find it. His grip of the ball had always canted the seam towards slip but now, with a subtle change to his upper body position and wrist, he was able to set the seam to fine leg and rip open some of the finest batsmen on the planet.
As Marshall used to say, the magic is all in the wrist. The beauty of this skill, to swerve the ball late and accurately in both directions, is one of cricket's most essential and beguiling attractions. It comes with new ball and old, in the orthodox fashion and reversed.
Like any number of the current cricketers, Jimmy has an aversion to the media. He can be a surly so-and-so and a nightmare to interview. This is less because of a previous sting than of shyness and a reluctance to be singled out. Having said that, he has been photographed near naked for a gay magazine and appeared in many a rag trade shoot. These decisions are proof of an interesting and open mind. In the middle ground of such extremes is a strong commitment to charities and a revealing generosity of spirit. He is reliable and kind. To see him with wife and daughters, quietly satisfied with the way in which the dice have rolled, is to better understand the man the behind the mask.
He spoke the other day about the need for aggression in his game. By this, one supposes he alludes to sledging. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the collisions with Michael Clarke in Brisbane and Ravindra Jadeja at Trent Bridge last summer, Anderson pushes these moments and his opponents to the edge. It is an energy from which he feeds. But that does not make it right to play ugly. He blames being off colour in the World Cup on Big Brother - aka the ICC - and the threat of punishment for further indiscretion. He can play hard, he can play hungry, he can play mean but there is no need to pick fights. Those that rule the game surely have to protect its public face and Anderson is on their radar.
He is best to let the ball do the talking, and some days it does just that. He is smart enough to find a way around the intrusive eye and fit enough to bowl for a while yet. On occasions it appears as if he has lost his "nip"; other times he cruises in like the boy that Channel 4 missed a dozen years back. Back him for another 35 Test matches and 500 wickets. And if you get the chance to see him up close, enjoy the skill and applaud the application. Just as Sir Ian will be doing in Antigua tonight.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK